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Performance Language

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

“Control the controllables!”

“Stick to our structure!”

“Play our game!”

NHL (and I’m sure NBA and NFL) Coaches are fixated on statements like these during their pregame speeches. Business executives, wise family members & good friends remind us to focus thoughts and actions on the principles behind these statements.

I learned early in life that our opponents very seldom actually beat us; more often than not we beat ourselves. More teams lose because they don’t execute their game plan, then are actually beaten by a better team, or a better product. Why is this? Players become distracted, get emotionally hijacked, or teams relationally implode. They take their eyes off of what they want (what we call the Future Positive), and start to focus instead on what they don’t want.

By the way, just a simple reminder that in 2018, you and I are going to lose some games. Of course, losing a game doesn’t equate to us being losers. Many times after a loss, our coaches would close the door of the dressing room and say, “We executed our game plan tonight. We put our best game on the ice and they beat us; I can live with that. Keep playing this way and we will get our share of wins.” This is a coach focused on the process that creates the win, not a coach fixated on outcomes only.

Long term success is about playing the odds. The better, more consistently we play our game, the more wins we will eventually accumulate. The question is, where do we tend to focus?

“Do the little things that win tonight!”

“Get our BEST GAME on the ice tonight, boys!”

Take note of the tone in the language above. The difference between playing and winning in sport/business/life is very seldom a talent issue; it’s often a language/mindset issue. Language influences action and emotion, and action and emotion influence language.

And this is often where our focus gets hijacked. Outcome language sounds good, but doesn’t deliver the direction needed to accomplish the outcome. For example:

“We’d better win tonight.”

“I have to score a goal soon.”

“My sales are down this quarter.”

“I hope that we don’t lose.”

Process language, on the other hand, is an essential element to winning over the long run. It re-focuses our energy off of outcomes and back onto the action that delivers. It is, in the words of NCAA Basketball coach, John Wooden: “practicing the details that give us the win.”

At times when I played in the NHL, I experienced long goal-scoring slumps. At some point during a slump, I realized that my language (both inner and outer voice) had changed, hijacking my performance and extending the slump. My outcome language sounded like: “I’d better score soon or the coach will take me off the power play.” This is what I now call a Future Negative “Outcome Statement.”

As a professional athlete, I had to learn to shift my language to help activate the process that gave me the desired outcome, using statements like: “During the 20 shifts that I participate in tonight’s game I will drive the net and generate 4+ shots on net.” Focusing on this Future Positive “Process Statement” generated more opportunities for me to create my desired outcome… scoring goals.

Let’s look at this Process vs Outcome language concept in the context of an area of life that we all desire to increase – our Happiness.

In her book Happy for No Reason; 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out, Marci Shimoff states that less than 30 percent of people report being deeply happy. She reports that 25 percent of Americans and 27 percent of Europeans report depression. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, depression will be second only to heart disease in terms of the global burden of illness.

Would we all agree that every one of us wants to increase our happiness in 2018?

But wait - for many of us, happiness has become a desired outcome. “I will be happy when… I get a raise, have a fun relationship, win the lottery, make the NHL, etc.”

According to Shimoff, “People with high happiness set-points are human just like the rest of us. They don’t have special powers, an extra heart, or X-ray vision. They just have different habits. It’s that simple. Psychologists say that at least 90 percent of all behavior is habitual. So, to become happier, you need to look at your habits.”

That’s better! We are back focusing on the actions, the process, and the process language that generates the Happiness - Win.

According to the researchers Shimoff quotes, 50% of our happiness set-point comes from genetics while 10% is determined by our circumstances, such as our job, marital status, wealth. “The other 40 percent is determined by our habitual thoughts, feelings, words and actions. This is why it is possible to raise your happiness set-point. In the same way you’d crank up the thermostat to get comfortable on a chilly day, you actually have the power to re-program your happiness set-point to a higher level of peace and well-being.”

In 1977, Shimoff reports, Dr. Michael Fordyce, a psychologist and author of The Psychology of Happiness published a groundbreaking experiment where students who had to study the habits of happy people actually increased their happiness and life satisfaction just by learning about the subject.

Shimoff confirms in her book what other scientists have previously stated about our thought processes. Studies now show that we have, on average, 60,000 thoughts per day. The interesting thing is that 95% of the thoughts we had yesterday, we will have today, and 80% of those thoughts are negative.

If we do no training in this area, our thoughts will continue to be predominantly negative. Negative thoughts tend to generate negative emotions, creating negative language and negative emotions prolong negative thinking, generating negative language… Jenn & I call this the “Happiness Hijack.”

As the psychologist and brain researcher Dr. Rick Hanson explained, our brains are “Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity.” Our negative experiences stick to us like Velcro, while our positive experiences slide right off us like Teflon. In fact, researchers have found that it takes numerous positive experiences to overcome a single negative one!

In the context of our Thinking Tendencies Model (the primary training tool we use to help our clients shift their cultural performance), we need to strengthen the habit of focusing action and language on what we want (the Future Positive process) instead of focusing on what we haven’t accomplished (Past Negative outcomes) or what might not happen (Future Negative outcomes).


Changing our Language Appetite

In my first book, Off the Bench and Into the Game, I retold the legend of a Native elder talking to his grandson about the inner battle all people experience. He explained that there is a battle between the two wolves that live inside us all. He called one wolf Unhappiness; it’s voice sounded like fear, worry, anger, jealousy, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, and inferiority. The other wolf was called Happiness, with a language of joy, love, hope, serenity, kindness, generosity, truth, and compassion.

The grandson asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf wins?’

The elder replied, “The one you feed the most.’

This story hits home because it eloquently highlights how we are personally responsible for doing the feeding. Do we have an appetite to increase Happiness? Can we develop an appetite to adjust our language and increase our joy?

Exchange Blame Language for I am Responsible Language

Looking back on my NHL start as a rookie with the Washington Capitals, I remember that our team struggled to put wins together. Now that I think about it, we blamed the referee as much as we could. Past Negative Outcome Statements can easily become a disempowering habit.

After four seasons, I was traded to the Montreal Canadiens who were coming off 6 Stanley Cup wins in the 70’s. In the Montreal dressing room, the cultural language was different (and I don’t mean French/English). An expectation to win the Stanley Cup again activated unique words and body language.

The lesson that I learned playing with the Canadiens was that I needed to not blame circumstances, referees or other players, but take responsibility for my little part in delivering the win – my Future Positive Process. Life tends to deliver on our expectations, both when we blame, and when we take responsibility!

Asking Better Questions

Questions can re-focus the language that impacts our actions. Rather than asking

who’s to blame, let’s change our focus by asking better questions.

What can I learn from this?

What is the gift in this for me?

What is the next action that I can personally take?

“Next Time” what will I do? (just a note - next time is one of my favorite statements to shift focus and energy after I have made a mistake or when I catch myself in the Defensive Zone).

Be Intentional with Language; Create Awareness with your Pen.

One of the best ways to recognize and change language is to write it. Science tells us that we can “prime” ourselves and others. Writing in a journal about the things we want (Future Positive) and the parts of our lives that we have enjoyed (Past Positives) can prime us to increase our happiness and intensify our positive emotions.

In an experiment by Dr. Robert Emmons at the University of California-Davis, people who kept a weekly gratitude journal (a written record of things they felt grateful for) enjoyed better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly, and described themselves as happier than a control group who didn’t keep journals.

This big idea that we are exploring together today has huge application across so many important areas of our lives. Process Language heightens our performance, our relationships, our culture, and influences our outcomes.

Listen in to language this week. What are you hearing… Outcome Language or Process Language?

Changing your words, changing your language… changes your life!


Our January and February training schedule is completely booked. Let’s look together at training your team, leaders, and culture during the final 3 quarters of 2018. Your ROI will be influenced by your people’s ROT (Return on Thinking)!

The Ryan Walter Breakaway Retreat is almost ready!

Jenni and I are “Happy” painting our new Leadership Retreat Centre in the Gulf Islands. (We are now booking Executive, Leadership, and Sales retreats starting April 15, 2018.)

Bring your team for a refreshing retreat experience. Let us facilitate your meetings, enhance your team creativity & inspire your best. Come relax, grow, train and hang out with high performers as you play on the Pacific Ocean.

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