How A Harvard Team Became National Champions By Pretending
She had never coached basketball in her life. A few years later, she led Harvard’s 16th seeded women’s basketball team to victory over number one-seeded Stanford in the NCAA tournament. She has since racked up more wins than any coach in Ivy League history. How did she do it? By teaching herself and her players a powerful focusing technique.
Kathy Delaney-Smith has become a college basketball legend. She not only led Harvard’s women’s basketball team to a seemingly impossible NCAA victory over top-ranked Stanford, but has coached the team to 10 other Ivy League titles. In total, she has coached Harvard to over 500 wins.
Yet, Delaney-Smith began her career as a swimming coach, and took over a distressed high school basketball team only because no one else was available. She knew little about the game, but they were desperate. When the school superintendent asked her, “can you coach them and can you win?” she confidently answered that she could.
Despite lacking any experience, she coached the previously terrible high school team to six undefeated seasons and a state championship. Harvard noticed, and she went on to take its women’s team, ranked last in the conference, to basketball glory.
How do you go from knowing next to nothing about basketball to becoming a legendary college coach with a record winning streak? Kathy Delaney-Smith guided herself and her players to success by using the “As-If” principle.
The Power of “As-If”
The “As-If” principle is deceptively simple, but requires sustained attention to realize its benefits. Delaney-Smith does more than simply pretend to be something else. She has used the As-If Principle as a guiding mindset that permeates everything she does.
When she began her coaching career, she would ask herself how she would carry herself, what information she would know, what skills she would have, how she would interact with her players, how she would coach a game – "if" she were a great coach.
Then Delaney-Smith set out to act “As-If” she were that great coach. She obtained the information and skills she needed, and just as important, persistently acted as if she had the qualities of a great coach.
And it worked.
To be clear, this is not another version of positive thinking, of trying to convince yourself that you are a stellar performer even if you aren’t. Rather, it’s a way of focusing on yourself and the world around you that summons the inner resources you already have and puts them to maximum use.
If anything, Delaney-Smith is at times blunt and decidedly not positive with herself or her players. She is quick to tell her players about their weaknesses. Without first having a clear-eyed understanding of what needs improvement, it is impossible to work toward improved performance.
The next step though, is for her players to imagine how they would act if they didn’t have those weaknesses. As soon as one of Delaney-Smith’s players knows she’s terrible at defense, it’s time to get to work acting as if she were good at defense.
This requires both hard work and imagination. The player conjures up what skills she needs and what she must do to acquire those skills, and then works on obtaining them. But in employing the As-If principle, Delaney-Smith also instructs her player to imagine specifically how she would play, specifically what she would do if she were good at defense – and then to act as if she were.
Delaney-Smith has applied the As-If principle to every aspect of the game. At practice, she can be heard instructing her players to “act as if you’re a great shooter.” “Act as if when you hit the deck it doesn’t hurt.” “Act as if you love the drill.” Even, “Act as if you’re not tired.”
Acting As-If will not make your challenges magically disappear. They will instead cause you to focus intensely and actively on improvement, and in the process rise to a level you didn’t know was possible.
If you relentlessly act as if you’re a great basketball player, focusing on what you would do in every aspect of the game if you were at the top of your game, you will not magically become Lebron James. But you will raise your game well beyond your previous level. From there, you can continue to act As-If, and raise your game even more.
And although you’re unlikely to overtake Lebron James by acting As-If, there’s no telling how far you can go. Kathy Delaney-Smith and her Harvard team are proof of that.
Putting the As-If Principle to Work in Your Life
You need not possess any interest in basketball to put the As-If principle to work for you and see better results. Acting As-If works with virtually anything.
It is not, as some irresponsibly claim, a panacea for every ill. But it is a solid method, now used in certain forms of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and backed by research, to focus your mind quickly and powerfully in the direction of improvement.
Many well-known figures have used the As-If principle. President Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “By acting as if I was not afraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
Samantha Power, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., rose to her achievements from more humble beginnings. According to Power, “’Acting as if,’ I decided, ridiculously in retrospect, that my experience covering women’s volleyball for my college newspaper was sufficient for me to at least try to become a war correspondent.”
As I discussed in a previous article, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer conducted an experiment with elderly men who spent a week together literally acting as if they were 20 years younger in every detail. After just a week of acting As-If, the men were objectively healthier by a range of measures, looked younger, were more mobile and showed greater cognitive ability. If acting As-If can reverse some of the effects of aging, surely it can help you overcome seemingly less daunting challenges.
As with so many factors that lead to improvement and success, rising to a higher level by acting As-If is a matter of mental focus. By summoning your mental reserves in a particular direction, the rest of you will soon follow.
You can get the most out of using the As-If Principle by adhering to these three guidelines:
1. Start with your weaknesses. As Kathy Delaney-Smith does with her players and herself, first figure out what’s not going well. Be as honest as possible with yourself. If you’re not clear about specifically what you need to improve in whatever area of your life you’ve chosen to improve, ask someone whose judgment you trust.
You can only make progress if you first understand what’s holding you back. It’s not enough to act As-If you’re a great writer or a great athlete or a great whatever. You’ll boost your abilities far more quickly if you know, for example, that your writing lacks clarity or your jump shot needs work or you lack the discipline to write or train regularly – and then focus on those specific weaknesses. Imagining what your writing would look like if it was clearer, and then acting As-If you write clearly, will do far more to improve your writing than if you only generally act As-If you’re a great writer.
2. Small steps, not magical thinking. Acting As-If has gotten a bad name in some circles because many use it as a form of magical thinking. Act As-If you’re a millionaire and you’ll be a millionaire doesn’t work so well. But if your goal is to be a millionaire, then breaking that goal into small steps and then acting As-If on each of those small steps will give you a much better shot at becoming a millionaire, or at least at improving your financial well-being.
First, act As-If you were someone with a mindset for making a lot of money. If you were trying to make more money, how would you act? What would you do? What steps would you take? What thoughts would you have? What would you avoid? How would you handle debt? How would you look for financial opportunities?
Take each step, one at a time. This might lead you, for example, to investing in real estate. Now you have a whole new set of act As-If scenarios. How would you act if you were a successful real estate investor? What information would you know? How would you approach risk? How would you pick properties with potential? Who would you listen to for advice and who would you avoid?
Essentially, start with whatever is immediately in front of you and move on from there. Your first step may even be simply to sit down and work on your goal when you’d rather take a nap. In which case, you can begin by asking yourself, as Kathy Delaney-Smith asks her players, to act As-If you are not tired.
3. Be consistent. Kathy Delaney-Smith went from novice coach to national ranking by acting As-If every single day in everything she did over a period of decades. If you try this once or twice and then drop it, you won’t see much progress.
Pick one goal. Take small steps, step by step. And then consistently act As-If in pursuit of your goal every single day. You’ll soon internalize the As-If mindset and start seeing results.