What Great Traders Can Learn from Great Athletes

10/07/2010 12:01 am EST

Focus: STRATEGIES

The Process vs. The Podium: How Focusing on the Prize Can Leave You Feeling Frustrated

By Bill Provenzano of ChristianTradingCoach.com

My wife and I can’t help ourselves. When the Olympics are on, summer or winter, we spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the television, often watching the games late into the night. I’m not sure if we watch with the same motivation. My wife loves to comment on the scenery, the clothing, and the colors. I watch with a sense of awe and inspiration at the athletes’ level of skill and commitment. Years and years of training and preparation oftentimes boil down to a brief moment of competition; a series of dives, a downhill run, a few laps around the track. Gold, silver, bronze, or a conciliatory pat on the back all hangs in the balance. 

A common sight at the Olympics is an athlete lying on his or her back, headphones on, in deep though and meditation prior to his or her event.  US skier Lindsey Vonn, who won gold for the US downhill ski team at the 2010 Winter Olympics, explained that she usually spends an hour's preparation in visualizing her races. Sara Schleper, also representing the USA ski team, says that she always takes time to visualize the course she is about to ski to make herself comfortable and confident with every element of the hill. These women use visualization to rehearse how they want to perform when soaring downhill at over 70 miles per hour in high-speed pursuit of a gold medal.

In addition to rehearsing how they want to perform, athletes will often visualize themselves on the middle podium with a gold medal around their neck and their national anthem being played. They are taught to incorporate as much detail as possible into this visualization exercise so as to make it as realistic as possible and overcome any doubt about its possibility. The more detail you incorporate into your visualization experience, the more deeply the vision becomes imprinted into your mind and the more real it becomes. It is important to not just see the goal, but to fully experience all the emotion that comes with it. As noted author and speaker Dr. Leaf states in her book, Who Switched Off My Brain, “You won’t believe it unless your brain’s limbic system (the seat of your emotions) allows you to feel that it is true” (Leaf, Dr. Caroline. Who Switched Off My Brain?  Dallas, Texas: Switch on Your Brain USA Inc, 2008, page 36). Any mental resistance you have towards a particular goal can be broken down over time and mentally accepted as not just possible, but true with each visualization exercise.

It is important to understand the distinction between visualizing the end result and visualizing the process that leads to the desired end result. The ultimate goal of a gold medal and all of the excitement and fulfillment that it brings is called the “outcome goal.” The flawless execution of each aspect of the performance that will bring about that desired end result is the “process goal.”  The outcome goal is the hoped-for prize, while the process goal is the perfect execution of each element of the competition. The outcome goal serves to motivate, while the process goal serves to define and ingrain the perfect performance.

As it pertains to trading, we are all very familiar with outcome goals, even though for most, they are poorly defined. For the trader who has not taken the time to define them, his outcome goals might be “To make a bunch of money,” “To trade as well as so-and-so,” or “To make as much money as I can in order to fund charitable works.” As noble as any of these goals might be, they lack clarity. 

Article Continues on Page 2

|pagebreak|

Equally poorly defined are this trader’s process goals. He may very well have some success. But if he were to define with great detail his process for making profitable trades, he could bring into greater focus the circumstances under which he is most profitable and the circumstances in which he is less profitable or suffers loss. Once he has defined the process that produces the most profitable outcomes, this trader can visualize himself perfectly executing his clearly defined process goals and ingrain that process into his neuromuscular and limbic system. 

I am often called upon to help traders deal with the frustration they experience when they fall short of the outcome goals they’ve visualized, or dare I say, daydreamed about. We all have a huge emotional investment in outcome goals. We may not think about it in those terms. We more commonly refer to them as our hopes, or expectations. In virtually every instance where anger accompanies frustration, that anger can be attributed to our expectations not being met. This is no less true for traders. Traders oftentimes have outcome goals or expectations (some reasonable, some not; some clearly defined, some not) in which they’ve invested an incredible amount of emotion. This is the struggle with outcome goals. They are great motivators and can serve to instill a firm belief that the goal can be accomplished. But when belief bumps up against reality, frustration arises. The greater the spread is between the outcome goal and reality, the greater the frustration and anger.

I, too, have suffered this frustration on several occasions on the path towards any given TAGG (TAGGs are my clearly defined trading outcome goals). But then I, too, have spent far too much time visualizing outcome goals and not enough time rehearsing process goals. Let’s face it; it’s more fun to visualize outcome goals than it is to visualize process goals. Outcome goals are exciting. They give us a thrill. And on each occasion that I experienced extended periods of frustration over not reaching my outcome goal, I can honestly say that it was my trading process that was flawed.

Your trading outcome goals simply will not be met without the accomplishment of the accompanying process goals, which identify the pathway to reaching the outcome goal. If you have not clearly defined your outcome goal, I encourage you to take the time to do so. All too often, grandiose outcome goals are simply the manifestation of unrealistic expectations. Ask yourself:

  1. Is my outcome goal clearly defined?
  2. What is my outcome goal?
  3. Is my outcome goal realistic based on my level of trading experience and account size?

Once you’ve answered those questions, move on to the following:

  1. Write out in as much detail as possible the trading process (or processes) that brings you the greatest profits. These are your process goals.
  2. Write out in as much detail the process (or processes) that cuts short your profits or leads to losses.
  3. Spend consistent time—like an Olympic athlete—mentally rehearsing your process goals.

By clearly defining your process goals and also identifying those behaviors that get in the way of maximizing your trading profits, you now have a baseline upon which you can build upwards.  You know what works and what doesn’t. You can backtest what you have identified that does work and begin to extract some very real profit projections. This will help you to better define your outcome goal and tighten that spread between your perhaps too-aggressive outcome goal and your reality.   

It is important to spend as much time (if not more) visualizing your process goals as you do your outcome goals. With due time devoted to each, you can create a balanced approach to visualization that will strengthen both your confidence in the outcome goal and your adherence to your process goals. 

By Bill Provenzano of ChristianTradingCoach.com

Related Articles on STRATEGIES