Kenley Jansen: the powerful emotion he channelises to win

Kenley Jansen is a baseball player who specialises as a closer. His team gives him the ball to get the final outs in a close game. It’s always a high pressure situation and requires laser sharp focus to execute with great skill.

If he is slightly off the mark, his team loses. What do you do to get the best out of yourself in such tense climatic situations – game after game?

Jansen’s secret to do well was to not be the happiest person on the field. 

Happy does not create peak performance

Psychologist V H Medvec and his colleagues from the University of Cornell showed photos of the 1992 Olympic medalists to a bunch of people. The task was to just look at the photos and judge who looked the happiest.

Unsurprisingly, the ones with the biggest smiles were competitors who had just won the gold medal. But surprisingly, winners of the bronze medal were voted as being happier than those who had won the silver!

Isn’t that odd? What explains this oddity?

The bronze winners were happy because at least they had won a medal. The silver winners were unhappy because they had missed out on the gold! “If only they were one second faster.” 

But is being unhappy bad? Not necessarily.

How nearly winning changes your behavior

You see, a near win makes you work harder in the future! Monica Wadhwa of Insead manipulated a mobile game to create near win experiences for players. Right when they are on the verge of winning, something bad would happen! You know what she found? Without fail, folks who experienced a near win increased their effort afterwards!

Similarly, Professor Yuan Jia at the University of Macau scoured through the data of 100,000 lottery buyers. And found that people who had missed winning the lottery by just 1 or 2 numbers would spend a lot more money buying more lottery tickets in the future!

“Almost” winning fuels your efforts more than winning! But why?

Because a near win fills you with regret!

Regret is that funny negative emotion that leaves you blaming yourself for a bad outcome. “If only you would have…” 

But the pain of regret is powerful. It helps you refocus. And redouble your effort. It clears your mind and helps you take corrective action.

So how can you awaken your regret?

Dan Pink in his book “The Power of Regret” tells us about an experiment where researchers ask people to do a bunch of anagram puzzles. After the test, the people are told that they didn’t do very well. 

  • But half the people are told in a way that dampens their regret away: “at least you got half the answers right.” 
  • The other half were told: “if only you would have found the trick…”

In the second round, the folks who were made to feel regretful with “if only…” ended up spending more time behind the anagrams. And as a result, they solved more puzzles than the others.

If you can get into the frame of mind of “if only” – then your mind will take corrective action. And thats exactly what Jansen did.

How Kenley Jansen channelised regret

Before getting on the field, Jansen would see videos of his poor past performances. His goal was to make him angry. He wants to get his brain stuck on the feeling of “if only…”

And that’s how, in 2017, Jansen created a baseball record of having the most number of strikeouts without giving up a single walk. The previous record was 35 strikeouts. Jansen left that number behind in the dust with 51 strikeouts!

What’s the downside of channelising regret?

While regret can help you with focus and performance, it can become all consuming. It can create a feeling of obsession to fix your mistakes. Repetitive self blame affects your mind and your body. It creates stress. It leads to depression.

What you’ve got to do is reframe regret. Understand that regret is a good learning tool. Regret helps humans improve their chances of survival as they go through their past mistakes. 

But the past has gone. It can’t be changed. It can only be learnt from.

Action Summary:

  • “At least” puts your mind in a state of contentment. “If only” puts your mind in a state of refocus. It makes you hungry.
  • Go through your poor performances before a big challenge. Try to think what you could have done differently. Create a sense of regret. You won’t regret it.
  • You don’t want to wallow in regret. You want to learn from it.