Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Psychology of Preparation: What Traders Can Learn From Dan Gable

Georges St.-Pierre, the mixed martial artist, once summarized his approach to workouts:  "I make my training so hard that it's impossible that the fight will be harder than my training."  In other words, the workouts for the body were also mental workouts.  What strengthened his body, toughened his mind.

No one has lived that philosophy more than championship wrestler and wrestling coach, Dan Gable.  Over the course of a high school and college wrestling career Gable achieved a record of 182-1, with an Olympic gold medal in 1972.  During that Olympic competition, Gable not only won decisively over the world's greatest competition; he did not surrender a single point to his opponents.  It is difficult to imagine a more dominant performance from an athlete.

But that is only half the story.  Following his ultra-successful wrestling career, Gable went on to coach the Iowa Hawkeyes and turn them into a dominant force in collegiate wrestling.  Over a 21 year career, he won 15 national titles and amassed a record of 355-21-5.  Not only did Gable have an "edge" as a wrestler; he was able to teach that edge to his students.

How does someone become that successful in multiple careers over such an extended period of time?

As Gable observes in this 1972 Olympic Special video, he trains so hard that he becomes mentally as well as physically tougher than his opponents.  This conditioning allows him to stay on offense at all times, taking control of the match from the outset.  That quote from Georges St.-Pierre captures an important aspect of Gable's success:  by exceeding his limits and challenging himself every day in training, Gable created one experience of mastery after another.  He was a winner in his training long before his hand was raised in the ring.  

The body builder Mike Mentzer popularized the concept of training to failure:  challenging your muscles by lifting just enough to hit your limits.  The muscles don't adapt and grow, Mentzer taught, unless they are pushed to their limits.  By pushing yourself to failure, you set the conditions for success.  Gable knew this well as a wrestler.  On many occasions he practiced and trained so hard that he literally could not get on his feet to make it back to the locker room.

In his book, Gable describes a visualization exercise he used to perform during his training on the cycle.  While cycling, he would imagine in vivid detail his entire workout routine.  As he relived the challenge, sweat, and exhaustion of his workouts, that pushed him to work harder on the cycle.  In every training exercise, his sole concern was pushing himself to his limits--making himself more than he already was.   When you hear people talk of Gable the wrestler or Gable the coach, the one phrase that recurs is "single-minded".

"If you know you haven't cheated, physically in your preparation, that makes you mentally tough," Gable observed for a 1973 Esquire article.

So what can a trader learn from Dan Gable?  Perhaps this:  if the day's trading session is more challenging for you than your preparation for that session, you will never reach elite levels of success.  If you have not pushed yourself to the limit before the opening bell, markets will find and test your limits for you.  Enter the ring with single-minded preparation and you will never compete with a divided mind. 

Further Reading:  The Role of Simulation in the Training of Traders