Friday, May 24, 2013

On Rivals & Rivalry

When I arrived as the new coach of a squash team, I entered unknowingly into a long-standing rivalry between my new team and that from another local prep school.  The bitterness between the two teams ran long and deep, with charges of thievery at games, boyfriend stealing, slurs on social media, and the standard suspicion that somehow the other side was gaining some competitive advantage through unfair means.  I was, quite frankly, shocked at the level of nastiness to which this rivalry had descended, particularly in the genteel sport of girls' prep school squash, and dedicated my first season to cleaning up the tenor of the rivalry and getting my team focused on the squash and not the banter.  For it seemed obvious to me that not only was this grudge antithetical to the entire mission of the school, we were the ones whose squash was suffering the most and who always came up on the losing end of our close encounters.  I often wondered if my team had decided that they would never beat this team and so had decided to take the consolation prize of winning the smear campaign.  The recent and very public kerfuffle between Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods has brought my old experience back to me quite vividly, and so I thought I'd share some things I tried to impress to my team back then about what a fantastic opportunity a rival represents and how to transform the negative feelings a rival elicits into performance gains.
    Violation of the first commandment.  Becoming embroiled in the negative aspects of a rival violates the first commandment of good sport cognition, namely, to focus on the things you can control, not the things you can't.  Though we need to be mindful of our opponent's moves and gamesmanship, a rivalry starts hurting our performance when our focus moves exclusively on that behavior rather than the appropriate performance response, which will usually just be to commit to focusing on the task at hand.
    Elevate the rival.   Two important distortions occur when a rivalry has gone south.  The first is that a rival is in our way and the second is that the rival is somehow less than human.  We see this latter in the terrible name calling we engage in toward the rival and in attributing evil intent to the rival.  Both of these thoughts elicit hostility, a motivator sometimes, but more often a distraction.  Instead, we have to shift the thinking and recognize that a rival offers a great opportunity to strengthen weaknesses in our own games and train harder, focus more clearly and play better.  In essence, the rival is calling us to a higher place, knowing all the while that if we engage in the negative thoughts and behavior that a rivalry offers, we are actually descending to a lower place.  Use the rival to motivate improvement, not to feed the impulses of judgment and rancor, which, if we are going to achieve our highest potential, need less attention rather than more.
    Take the higher ground.  Always take the high ground in these instances.  Always resort to better sportsmanship when you are being lured into gamesmanship.  Compliment rather than criticize  ("nice shot," rather than "lucky bounce!").  Don't take away your opponent's humanity by imparting evil intent to them.  Doing so is not only better for the game, it's better for your game.  You will find yourself less caught up in your opponent's shenanigans and more focused on your own play.  And, you will not have a moral hangover for slights and injuries that you were lured into, behaviors that linger into subsequent points and games and drain your focus away from the moment at hand.
    To return to the earlier example of Sergio and Tiger.  I think it was fairly clear to everyone on Saturday at the Players Championship that Sergio's blaming Tiger for his own bad shot on the 38th hole of the tournament was an example of bad sport cognition which bit him very bitterly on the 71st.  I have written in these bytes before about Sergio's bad thinking, but his behavior at the Players and his subsequent offhand and racist comments really reached a new level, and in it we should recognize the self-destructive power of the kind of negative thinking involved when a rivalry goes awry.  Think of him what you may, but Tiger Woods is clearly calling the golfing world to a higher level (of golf) and if Sergio could only transform his negative thoughts about Tiger into motivating ones, he might be the one raising the jug on Sunday.  Believe me, no one would be more motivated to play better golf by such a sight than Tiger.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

On Yelling & Yellers

In one of the schools where I taught and coached, a story fairly well-known to students and some of the coaches circulated about one of the coaches.  At halftime, during one game when the team was not playing particularly well, they received a verbal lashing, all-too common from that coach.  When his rant reached its apogee, the coach became so apoplectic in his rage that he picked up a folding chair and threw it, catching one of his players in the forehead and causing a deep cut that required attention from one of the trainers.  Players collaborated in squelching the event and in contriving the fiction that the injury had happened during game time.  The incident was never discussed publicly and the coach was never censured for an event that conveniently never happened.  I bring this story out of my past for several reasons.  For one, it has always amazed me how the abuser gets protected by the system, and how a group under the thrall of an abuser colludes to keep the abuse a secret.   For another, I have always been perplexed and dismayed at the problem of yelling, a pathology at any time, but one that is particularly malignant in parenting, leadership and coaching; that is, when there is a power imbalance between the yeller and his target.  I hope that with the very public firing of the Rutger’s University men’s basketball coach more people will feel empowered to take a stand against the yeller in their life,  but I have my doubts that the fate of Mike Rice will start a national campaign to eradicate this sickness.  In this post, I’ll give you some reasons why all coaches (parents, bosses, people) should seek to eradicate yelling from their communication repertoire.
    The Pygmalion Effect.  Separate from the locution I coined in my last parent post, psychologists have discovered a phenomenon that shows that if you demand a higher standard, you can get it.  That is, if you have high expectations of people, you will get more out of them than if you don’t.  Yelling is an egregious misunderstanding of this concept.  Yelling, physically abusing them or hurling homophobic epithets at them will definitely have an effect on them, that is, of triggering their fight/flight/freeze mechanism.  So, while some players’ fight response might engage, you are just as likely to have players feeling more timid and even freezing in the face of performance challenges.  Coaches are much more likely to elicit peak performance by setting high standards and by giving more attention and praise when their athletes achieve those levels and by simply paying less attention to gaffes, misses and miscues.  In a team that identifies and rallies around high standards, mistakes are taken in stride and no one needs to get excoriated, singled out or put in the penalty box of shame, from which best results are rarely achieved.
    The Messiah Fantasy.  All groups fall prey to the fantasy that the leader will lead them to the promised land (more wins, greater profit, increased safety from external threats).  The successful leader will always seek to thwart this fantasy by communicating to his group that achieving those gains falls on everyone’s shoulders.  Harnessing the power of the group will always be more effective and reality-based than by having everyone believe that they are following some invincible Magus.  Furthermore, the truly empowering leader will forefront his or her players’ hands in victory and downplay his or her own, but (s)he will always take blame for defeats.  The yeller misunderstands these basic tenets by communicating--through their dysregulation--that their players will succeed only through their obedience.  For the yeller, it is all about him.  For the coach, it is all about the group.  The yeller communicates to his players that they will sink or swim because of the coach, and that they should never forget that.  Whereas the coach communicates that they will sink or swim through the collective efforts of the group and that the coach will do everything to help them swim.
Cohesion.  So, as you can see from above, team cohesion is really the holy grail of successful team play.  The yeller and abuser shatters cohesion because (s)he will split the team’s allegiances between those players who agree with those methods, perhaps because they had a yeller for a parent, and those who think (s)he’s insane and should be overthrown.  But mostly, the yeller creates a code of silence, evidenced by the team I referenced above, where open communication is shunned in part because it is not tolerated, and in part because no one wants to step out of line and feel the capricious wrath of the lunatic in their midst who mistakes himself for a visionary.  Finally, and perhaps most tragically, players will simply ignore the coach during yelling jags, retract their heads into their shells, thus missing important opportunities to process mistakes, clarify misunderstandings, and learn & cohere as a group.
       If history hasn’t then psychologists certainly have taught us about the wages of obedience for the sake of obedience.  They have also echoed the lessons of history in how quickly and easily power is abused.  So, coaches should set their bar much higher than mere obedience and should be much more circumspect about how they use their tremendous authority.  Which is not to say that they can’t reprimand, give consequences or even deliver impassioned lectures about what does and does not float on their particular squad or why that particular drill was not performed well.  Setting high standards and providing the road map to achieving them is a far cry from yelling.  The difference can almost invariably be seen in the results.  Mike Rice’s Rutger’s team didn’t break .500.  The team I referred to above wasn’t even close to .500.  And as for that team’s coach?  He was hired away by a more prestigious institution with a more storied program.