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George H. W. Bush throws first pitch on April 3, 2000
George H. W. Bush throws first pitch on April 3, 2000
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I found a remarkable book.

Slowly, the metal door cranked upward. Like a moth to a flame, I approached the opening. I walked inside. As I deeply breathed the musty air – aaaah – a used book store!

I discovered one shelf of baseball books. On that shelf, one book was remarkable because it was a book about horseshoes! I’ll get back to that… It was a very thin hardback book (88 pages). The text was frequently interrupted by full-page ads for Federal Express, leaving only 70 pages. With wide margins and photos, you might think it not worth reading – but you would be wrong.

The X FACTOR was written in 1990 by George Plimpton. After losing a horseshoe match to George H. W. Bush, he was invited to a rematch. Not wanting to lose, he decided to acquire a winning advantage via the X FACTOR.

What was George Plimpton’s view of the X FACTOR?

The X FACTOR was powerful. George Plimpton knew it was an attitude that boosts a player’s natural ability, and wanted to know more.

He first heard the term used by Billy Talbert, tennis player. He was slight, not especially quick, and not overpowering. His amazing record was attributed to savvy, spirit, and determination.

He talked to Bill Curry (football coach at Alabama). Bill Curry said the X FACTOR was five characteristics;

  • singleness of purpose (focus and block out distractions)
  • unselfishness (push your body when others won’t or can’t)
  • toughness (be honest in your effort)
  • know your game (partly intuitive and partly training)
  • champions never quit

He talked to Willie Davis (Green Bay football star). Willie Davis said, “Every day that’s what I tell myself – not to let an opportunity slide by that I could have taken advantage of.” He talked about games having moments of commitment, when he could decide to act.

Over dinner, George Plimpton heard it said, “…every great athlete was motivated by some sort of controlled rage.” Several examples were discussed.

Most interesting was Bill Russell (Boston Celtics basketball star). Before each game, Bill Russell would imagine he was sheriff in a western cow town, and the opposing team was a gang of black-hats.

He talked with Henry Kravis, a successful business man, because he was “...one of these angry men.” Henry Kravis said, “ …if you don’t play your position, the team doesn’t move forward.” His goal was for his employees to own the process, believe in what they were doing, so they would become passionate and wrapped-up in their roles. Interestingly, he said the first thing he would do to prepare for the horseshoe match was practice.

George Plimpton wrote, “There is no understandable entry to the zone. Athletes speak of it in awe.” Understanding of the zone has advanced.

George Plimpton added a quote by Yogi Berra. A remarkable book about Yogi Berra was written in 1976 by Gene Schoor. It inspired me! It told the story behind Yogi’s quote.

Yogi Barra’s debut in the Majors was 1946 with 7 games played. In 1947, Yogi did not have enough experience to know which coaches to listen to and which coaches to ignore. In one at-bat, he should not have listened.

Prior to an at-bat, Charley Dressen (coaching “aide” under Yankee Coach Bucky Harris) talked to Yogi Berra. He said “Don’t let them sucker you into swinging at the bad ones. Make them get that good one over the plate. You’ve got to think when you’re up there at the plate. Think about swinging at the good pitch. Think! That’s the important thing! You’ve got to think when you’re up there at the plate.”

Yogi watched three consecutive strikes without swinging. That’s when he said, “How do you expect me to hit and think at the same time?” Yogi Berra quickly bounced back and in 1947, his batting average was 280 and his OPS+ was 114.

What is my view of the X FACTOR?

I continue to read books on mental-habits. With the caveat that my view is evolving, my view follows:

  • Preparation is important. As Kravis said, practice. Every day, look for opportunities to improve and develop mini-habits that contribute to success. Prepare ways to react and bounce-back during challenges.
  • Be aware and in-control of your inner-thoughts. Apply lessons learned in practice. Intense focus allows no room for distractions. Focus enhances situational awareness to see Willie Davis’s opportunities of commitment. Focus enhances decisiveness, as does passion. Attitudes help. My attitude could be: I make a choice and all resistance crumbles.
  • Create a mental state known as being in-the-zone, or in-the-flow. The first step is getting primed to be in-the-zone or in-the-flow. Five methods to prime are talked about in the book The Rise of Superman. This season, I intend to write about preparing to be in-the-flow.
  • In my view, methods to get into the zone build on a foundation of who-I-am-at-my-core and control-of-my-breathing. When I prepare for a challenge, who-I-am-at-my-core builds my intensity and decisiveness without rage and without Bill Russell’s need to fight black-hats. Controlling-my-breathing makes priming possible because breathing greatly influences my mental state and my physical state (Source: Textbook of Yoga Psychology, Rammurti Mishra M.D., 1963).

The horseshoe re-match happened.

They played the re-match at Camp David. So how did it turn out? Instead of too-quickly spoiling your curiosity, I will change the subject. Before they played, they spent time talking about the X FACTOR, making them both pre-game winners.

George Bush said when he was young, he played golf better one-on-one because “With people watching, the pressure made me knuckle under.” After he became comfortable with crowds, “...its been a 180-degree turn.” Crowds helped him rise to the occasion.

George Bush said, “I find that as the pressure mounts, the adrenaline flows, and it pushes you to be better.” And how would he react to a spectator or coach yelling at him? “You just determine, well, we’ll show ‘em.”

In the rematch, George Bush showed ‘em!