Thriving in the Chaos

As a Michigan alum, I hate Michigan State football.

I can’t stand their coach, and I root against their alumni in the NFL. I feel dirty just thinking about wearing green and white.

But there’s one aspect of Michigan State football than I have to admire. More than any other team that I’ve ever seen, they thrive on chaos.

Michigan State is at their best when things go wrong. It seems like they benefit every time a game deviates from the status quo.

We saw it this year against Michigan and Penn State – two games that they should have lost by all logical accounts. Michigan was a top ten team coming into the game, and they were at home against their rivals. And Penn State looked like they were one of the top teams in the country before they visited East Lansing. Yet MSU pulled out both games.

And they both followed a similar script. Unique weather conditions took the other team off their game, and Michigan State was able to fight through the conditions and keep it together.

The majority of the Michigan game was played under a torrential downpour. Michigan turned the ball over five times. Yet Michigan State, a team that had struggled with turnovers all year, didn’t turn it over once.

During the Penn State game, the weather got so bad that the game was delayed for almost four hours. And when play resumed, Penn State clearly wasn’t ready to play. They let the extended wait throw them off.

But Michigan State? They almost seemed to be better after the delay. They came out, instantly made a few big plays, and capitalized on the situation.

The most impressive part about these wins is that the script isn’t new. You can look back through their time under Mark Dantonio and see strange games like this almost every year. Michigan State came from way back to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl a few years ago. They’ve made countless big plays at the end of games to win in incredible fashion. They consistently play above their ability against rivals.

As a Michigan fan, it’s infuriating. But as I said, I have to admire the resolve they consistently show as a team.

It reminds me of the way Josh Waitzkin approached chess while becoming a World Champion.

Unlike most players who start by learning opening series, and become accustomed to a “pretty” style of chess, Josh trained for chaos. He taught himself to thrive in adverse conditions on the boards, and how to win ugly.

Rather than starting by mastering opening moves, Josh learned to play when things got messy. He mastered the closeout when he had just his king and a pawn. He learned to play when his queen was taken out early, or his defense was penetrated.

And he used this skill set to his advantage.

Josh became comfortable playing through chaos. But his opponents often weren’t.

So if things were going too smoothly, Josh would intentionally make a drastic move to change the board. And since he had far more experience in chaotic situations than his opponents, it almost always worked in his favor.

I have tremendous respect for people who thrive in these types of conditions, because I’ve seen how important it is if you want to be successful.

More times than not, it seems like the biggest moments occur when the conditions are anything but perfect. The biggest race takes place on the hottest day of the year. The projector doesn’t work on the day of the big presentation. The printer gets jammed five minutes before your paper is due. Your nose starts bleeding during the biggest exam of the year.

And time and time again, it’s the people who can perform through the chaos that rise to the top.


So what can you do develop this ability?

Train for it.

Josh Waitzkin used to keep his room filthy so he could get used to living in chaos. He’d practice playing chess with music blaring in the ears, and he’d have his friends blatantly cheat and take dirty shots at him while he was practicing.

Then when he played a dirty player in the tournament, Josh wasn’t phased. If the other player kicked him under the table, or wouldn’t stop talking while Josh was trying to think, it wouldn’t bother him.

Even in the NFL, this type of training is common. Tony Dungy used to intentionally create chaos during each preseason. He’d set off the fire alarm in the middle of the night right before a game, or he’d make sure the bus left much later than it was supposed to.

And he’d leave it up to his team to figure out how to respond.

Through this practice, Dungy made sure that his teams were prepared to perform if things went awry when it really mattered.

At a smaller scale, I personally love creating adversity in my life. I enjoy new obstacles and challenges, because I view them as training opportunities.

Some people think I’m crazy. But I’m just trying to learn how to thrive in the chaos.