Monday, April 30, 2007
Focus in the Face of Adversity
by Doug Hirschhorn, Ph.D.
At the top levels of the trading world, hard-work and intelligence do not differentiate between successful and unsuccessful traders. I believe the same concept applies with elite athletes in any sport. Fact is there are an abundance of guys who can throw in the mid 90’s, but how not many can do it AND hit their spots consistently when the pressure is on. How many golfers, in a pressure situation on the 15th hole, can fly the green, end up buried in the back bunker, and then chip the ball within a foot of the pin on their next shot, saving par? I think you would agree that the answers to both questions are ‘not many.’ So then what really does differentiate the elite from the elite? If you ask me, I think it is their mental game.
For golf legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, focusing was a mental skill that moved them from winners to legendary. In reality, it was not that they possessed substantially greater raw talent than others but rather that they had greater FOCUS than most. Over the years, they have revealed their ‘secrets’ to others and while the concepts are simple enough, the consistent application of them is what seems to make the difference. The following are two things that can put you on the path towards Reaching Your Trading Potential: Controlling Distractions and Just Playing the Game.
I know you all have heard this one before, but if you are not doing it on a consistent basis, then you certainly need to hear it again – and listen this time.
Anything and I mean ANYthing that pulls your attention away from what you are working on should be viewed as a distraction.
If it helps, you can think of distractions (no matter how small) as bungee cords holding you back from reaching your potential. You know they are there, you try to block them out, but eventually they reach maximum tension, stopping your forward momentum and sling-shotting you backwards.
I have found that the major mistake people make is they try to block out the distractions. Fact is distractions are always present so accept them as part of your reality. Once you stop fighting with them, you can choose to just IGNORE them. Did you hear what I said? “CHOOSE.” That’s right. As soon as you see a distraction as a choice you can make, it then changes the entire game from out of your control to INTO your control – and that is where the mental game lives. In other words, let distractions become background noise in your game. No need to waste time, energy, and resources on trying to eradicate them because if you refuse to view them as a threat to your focus then they cannot be.
In trading, perhaps the single greatest distraction to a trader’s performance is the money. While money is the final measure of success in a trading career, the way to achieve that success is actually by learning how to view trading as a game.
Focus in the Face of Adversity
Trust me, it is not magic and I have found that the best way to explain this powerful concept is to walk you through an example of how two traders can react to the same setback in totally different ways. The scenario is that the traders have been trading well for the past few days and then unexpectedly get run over by the market because of factors outside of their control. The economic result is that they end up giving back 50% of their profits in one trade.
So much for being on fire. You gotta be kidding me! I knew I was due for loss. I can believe they did this to me. What a joke. This market stinks. It is totally impossible. Just when I get some momentum, they turn around and run me over. I will never get that money back.
Wow, what just happened? Wait a minute. Take a step back. Focus. No point in getting angry. I need to stay in control. I am not happy about what the market just did but I refuse to compound the problem by getting emotional. I had edge in that trade. I followed my plan. It just did not work out. And there was no way I could possibly know the market would turn on a dime. As much as this hurts, it is also the reason why I love this game.
As you can see, Trader A became emotional, erratic and angry while Trader B remained mentally focused, objective and accepting. The cold reality is that this is trading and that means there is always uncertainty and risk. Unexpected set backs are going to happen from time to time. That is the nature of the game. No one is out to sabotage you it is just the cost of doing business. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes it just rains.
Playing the Game
Now, let’s be clear about what I am saying. When I say “game” I mean not getting caught up in the economics or severity of any given situation. The more FUN you can have, the greater your capacity will be to remain focused and objective.
Jack Nicklaus used to talk about golf as a game of ‘amused tolerance’ where one shot makes you feel like a pro while the next shot can make you feel like a hacker. As any elite trader will tell you, success and failure in trading comes down to your ability to stay balanced with your emotions. If you are able to see your world as a game then the highs will never be too high, the lows will never be too low, and you will always have fun experiencing it.
So now that you understand what it takes, you should be asking HOW do you do it. While there is a clear answer, there, unfortunately, are no short-cuts to achieving it. It really comes down to PRACTICE, PERSISTANCE and PATIENCE.
Practice the mental skills you know you need to work on
Be Persistent in working on them
Have Patience with yourself as you develop them
Perhaps the best way I can help you master this is to encourage you to apply this philosophy to a different activity and then have you transfer it to what you do as a trader. What I mean is the next time you play golf, tennis, basketball or any other sport, focus on Seeing it as a Game and work on balancing your competitive intensity with having FUN in engaging in the activity. Be aware of the highest highs and lowest lows by catching yourself from getting giddy when things are going well and boosting yourself out of disappointment when things are not going your way.
So what is a major factor in differentiating good traders from great and great ones from the elite? Well, as you have probably guessed by now, it is not raw talent. Sure some people have a head start because of how they are hard-wired but that does not mean they are destined for success and the rest of us for failure. Remember, few great traders are born that way. In reality, factors such as controlling distractions, focusing in the face of adversity and playing the game are critical to differentiating success from failure and that is why trading is the greatest occupation in the world. The best part about understanding that is anyone can learn how to master them because it is just a choice, and one that we each can make for ourselves.
Doug Hirschhorn, Ph.D.