Book Review: Tog Dog by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Here is what I learned  from reading Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman:

Competition is a big part of life. In sports and in work we have to compete against others to get what we want. There's no way around it. You can either embrace competition or you can run away from it. This book teaches you the attitudes and skills needed to develop competitive fire, also known as mental toughness.

To begin this book, the authors teach some healthy attitudes about competition. For one, competition doesn't have to be seen only as a "dog eat dog," zero-sum game. Competition is also a means of developing virtues. Through competition, we can help each other improve as athletes and as people. Through competition, we develop skills that we can use to contribute to society and make the world a better place.

To end the book, the authors add more to this by talking about how competition is all about uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that makes life challenging, adventurous, exciting, fun, and rewarding. Even if we fail more than we succeed, this adventure of testing yourself, overcoming fears, and improving yourself is better than a pre-scripted life without the ups and downs of competition.

A healthy attitude about competition gives you a solid foundation to build the mental toughness needed to succeed in life. This book has 12 well-researched and well-written chapters about different factors of competitiveness.

Much of this book talks about the ways nature and nurture affect competitiveness. I learned how specific genes can make it easier or harder to perform under pressure. Some people are naturally able to stay more calm under pressure, while others have more of a tendency to overthink under pressure. This however, doesn't mean that you can't learn how to perform better under pressure. No matter what genes you're born with, you can train yourself and learn the skills needed to perform under pressure.

Your competitiveness is also greatly developed during your childhood. Parents can provide their children the experiences and guidance needed to build their mental toughness. For instance, kids can learn resiliency and sportsmanship by competing with their siblings and playing a wide variety of sports. However, even if your parents didn't help you develop competitiveness as a child, you can still develop it later in life.

My favorite chapter is about playing to win vs playing not to lose. To succeed in sports, you need to learn how to take risks and play to win. Growth and peak performance comes from playing with great aggressiveness and fearlessness. However, this often has to be balanced with playing smart and disciplined. For most people, playing not to lose come more naturally. This is why you need to train yourself to aim higher and become more comfortable taking risks. One of the best ways to do this is by framing pressure situations as challenges rather than threats. When you interpret a pressure situation as a challenge rather than a threat to your ego, you are more inclined to trust your instincts, play aggressive, and go all out.

Next, the authors talk about the importance of learning from your mistakes while staying calm and composed at the same time. Mistakes often cycle into more mistakes by increasing frustration and fear. The more you dwell on your mistakes, the more likely you are to make them again. This is why it's important to have a short-term memory and hit the reset button after each mistake. But while you can't be negative after mistakes, you also can't be indifferent. You need to be motivated to make corrections so you don't make the same mistakes. The real trick to improving performance is fixing your mistakes while remaining calm. 

I learned about the "near-miss bias," which is the tendency to become overconfident after getting lucky. I think this is very relevant in sports because there are many athletes and teams that become overconfident after making a lucky play or winning a lucky game. Athletes need to review their performance objectively and realize when they've gotten lucky. This can help them stay motivated to improve, and also help them play strategically smart and disciplined.

The authors offer a great attitude about luck. They say that the role that luck plays in games should motivate both underdogs and favorites. For example, an underdog should draw confidence from the fact that luck could help them win, and a favorite could stay focused by knowing that bad luck could make the game closer than it should be. Embracing luck in this way can be very helpful!

I also learned how interpreting stress and pressure as helpful can improve performance. When you tell yourself that you are excited rather than nervous before a big game, you are better able to harness and channel your nervous energy in a positive direction. Even if you're feeling a little nervous, you can still feel confident and in control, which will help you perform better.

Lastly, I learned how some athletes perform better in a team compared to when performing individually. This is usually because playing on a team allows you to be a part of something greater than yourself, which brings out the best in you. Also, when a team has great chemistry, they can be greater than the sum of their parts. However, some teams are actually less than the sum of their parts. This may be due to a lack of leadership, ownership, trust, and role-clarification.

My only criticism of this book is that it could have done a better job synthesizing all the chapters together to help give readers a way to better apply the knowledge and tips taught in this book. Other than that, I greatly enjoyed this book. Altogether, there's a ton of knowledge and inspiration that you can gain from this book. I highly recommend it to all athletes and coaches!