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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

Trying Too Hard/The 90% Rule

One of my pet peeves is when I hear an announcer say, “Well, they may not have won, but they gave it 110%!”  Or a coach, “Unless you’re giving me 110%, go home right now!”  I want to say to them, “Were you not required to take math when you were growing up?”

Full effort, one of TLC’s Three Crowns, means just that.  Full effort.  The maximum percent that is possible is 100%.  Give it your all.  Whatever you have in you, give it.  And you don’t have 110%, that is humanly impossible, so take that weight off your shoulders right now.  As a matter of fact, trying to give 110% is just counterproductive.

So today I am going to propose something different, where an equal amount of people will be as irritated with me as I am with the “110 percenters”.

I propose, in certain situations, that Full Effort should be 90%.

Stay with me on this.  Let me give a couple examples from both tennis and life.


Steve playing for the University of Iowa. Look at his concentration!


I was playing against a friend recently who is better than I am.  In order to win against him, I have to dial in and play my best.  When I was closing to the net on one particular point and had an easy put-away in my sights, I put it away, alright.  Right outside the sideline by two feet.  I stopped and thought.  “Hmmmm, I do this against him more than against other opponents of equal or lesser ability.  Why?”  The answer that came to me was, I was not a victim of not trying hard enough, but a victim of trying too hard.  Trying to do too much when “enough” will do.  And that hindered my ability to compete most effectively.

Certainly, this is a testament to my opponent’s greater skills, that he forces me to go for more difficult shots and angles than I am accustomed to in order to win points.  But, ultimately, I realized that I was changing my game in a different, fundamentally negative way by trying too hard.  I was going for too much, instead of trusting my knowledge and ability on the court when I have set up a point well, thus digging an even deeper hole with unforced errors.  I stood there and decided, “I am going to hit everything at 90% from here on out.”

Immediately, everything changed.  I started playing “within” myself.  I was calmer, and, surprisingly, I was staying in more points and putting them away when I had the opportunity.  He was still better than I was, but my game elevated because of the “90% Rule”.

The brilliance of Steve Wilkinson as a player was he looked like he was hardly moving.  He floated across the tennis court.  Effortless.  He didn’t try to do too much on the court, he tried to do the appropriate amount for his skills and the situation.  There is a reason he won championship after championship.  Steve moved on court the way my spouse, Leandra, sings.  Effortless.  It flows naturally.  There is a reason City Pages named her Female Vocalist of the year and critics around the country were mesmerized by her voice when we were doing concert tours full time.

Steve, in tennis, had cat-like quickness and instincts and anticipated beautifully, but never put more into a shot than he needed.  He was the player that most reminded me of Federer in that regard.


The lovely and talented Leandra Peak


Leandra, in music, sings the same way.  She opens her mouth and these magical sounds emerge as if they are flowing through her, not as if she were producing them or trying to manipulate them herself.

I, on the other hand, as witnessed above, can stutter and stumble and dive and push myself around the tennis court unnecessarily at times.  I can, as a singer, try to emote to the point where the point is lost in the trying too hard to get the point across.  (Wow, three “points” in one sentence!  That’s exactly what I’m talking about).

So, where can we, who are mere mortals on the court or in song, or in life, learn a lesson from these masters?

It is in that secret I discovered that works for myself when I am pressing too hard on the tennis court, or trying too hard to get my point across in concert or a presentation or as a teacher, or trying too hard to impress someone else of my significance in the world.  (Next blog:  “Lessons in Reducing Narcissistic Tendencies”).

I stop myself and say, “Dial it back to 90%, buddy.  You’re gonna be okay.”

What is amazing is that everything starts to flow more naturally and effortlessly, and my dialed back 90% is actually the 100% I’m looking for.

All this is to say, what I really hope to hear just one time in my life, is a coach yelling from the sidelines, “I believe in you, team!  So go out there and give it 90%!”

But never again 110 ;).

P.S.  I’ll leave you with what “effortless full effort” sounds like to me.  Click here to hear Leandra singing When You Come To The End Of The Day.

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