Sunday, January 12, 2014

Lessons From A Loss

Because I try to practice what I preach, I want to share with you some lessons I learned from a tough loss.  In an earlier post (“On Rivals and Rivalry”), I introduced you to a team I coached that was involved in a very unpleasant rivalry.  Without rehashing the details, I am going to tell you about a moment that I have reflected on a great deal since leaving that team.  We were going to play our rival for the last time in the season at their home courts, and when I pulled the van into the parking spot at our rival’s venue and was going to give some words of encouragement, my captain said that she had a request.  As it was her last match, I acquiesced, not knowing what it was.  Then, she pulled out her smartphone, plugged some portable speakers into it and played for the team Al Pacino’s inspirational speech from “Any Given Sunday.”  It was a difficult moment for me, because, having agreed, I didn’t feel as though I should turn it off, and yet it felt strange to me that we were listening to a fictional coach give a fictional speech to a fictional team.  Wasn’t I supposed to be giving a speech?  Wasn’t the captain?  Was this a referendum on my motivational speaking abilities?  Either way, I had a bad feeling in my stomach, and was not surprised to come out, yet again, on the losing end of an encounter with our rivals, finding that Al Pacino hadn’t worked his magic on our squad.
        But, it is not their fault.  In all arenas, but perhaps the athletic more than any other, we have become entranced by the power of the pre-game speech to inspire bold performance in players.  And although I am a big fan of listening to and delivering a good speech, I would like to dispel the notion that a good pre-game speech makes much of a difference in performance during the game.  In particular, I do not think speeches are a good way to overcome performance anxiety, and I would urge athletes and coaches alike to adopt a different approach to peak performance on any given Sunday other than relying on speeches.  And so, my advice to coaches when seeking peak performance from their players is to keep the pre-game words to a minimum and follow some simple steps:
Clarity of plan: Most coaches have devised fantastic practice plans throughout the season.  Game day is no different.  And big game days even more so.  That pre-game plan should be extremely detailed, including when people should arrive at the venue (or departure) site, what they should have eaten, what and who should speak before the event, how the warm up should proceed, and, who should watch and coach which players.  Finally, this plan should consider all contingencies as the match gets toward its decisive points.  As you can see from the vignette above, one problem was that I had not communicated with the captain as to who was going to speak when.  Thus, the plan, just like any other kind of training, is seeking to control as much as possible before and during the event and avoid all surprises.
Clarity of Communication: Pre-game speeches are nice, but the most important form of communication--other than discipline in practice--is the kind that happens during the game.  If a coach says something to his/her players, it should be brief (“hit to her backhand,” “volley more”) and digestible.  A good technique is to ask players to repeat what they heard before they go back into the melee.  There is nothing worse that adding to a player’s muddle with muddling words.  And remember: raising your voice, or even worse, yelling, is not a way of being more clear.  It is likely to contribute to rather than reduce performance anxiety.
Clarity of Role: One of the problems from the example above is that there was a lack of role clarification.  The captain was doing something I thought I was going to do, and, perhaps the players thought I was going to do something I didn’t do.  In any case, being very clear with a team about who does what and when is a key aspect of any successful team endeavor.  Its opposite, role diffusion, leads to confusion, poor performance, and potentially deep rifts among team members, as people are not giving and getting what they need from each other.
        Perhaps this is a problem of Hollywood’s making: when we think of good coaches, we think of them delivering rousing speeches.  But, really, the main job of a coach is the quite difficult task of fostering group cohesion in order to create the conditions under which each player can grow as a player and person and give her best up for the common good.  The three steps I’ve offered here will help.  And maybe you don’t want to take my word for it, but just please don’t take Al’s.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Learning from Loss

In our ruthlessly competitive culture, there is a huge premium on winning. Unfortunately, there are some pretty obvious negative consequences to this emphasis. First and foremost among these consequences: 'always be a winner' turns quickly into 'winner takes all' and then into 'win at all costs'.  But another insidious cost of this attitude is that losing becomes unacceptable.  In the arena of youth sport, we have managed this shame often by veering toward the equally unrealistic position of 'everybody's a winner', with score-less games, equal playing time for everyone, and trophies for all.  So, how is a young athlete to sort out this contradiction?  My answer: preach a gospel of losing.  We shouldn't preach this gospel for its own sake, but given that losing is more common than its opposite, we should remove the shame from it and celebrate it for all the things it can teach us not only about life but, well, winning.  By being better losers, we can in fact become better winners.
           In the very first post of this blog (“Scott’s Lytham Opportunity”), I wrote about Adam Scott's collapse in the last four holes at the British Open in 2012.  In that post, I suggested that if he really wanted to contend again in a major championship, he would do well not to shy away from the bitter sting of that defeat, but to really approach it, expand it and investigate it closely in order to mine it for all that it could teach him about how he handled himself in that situation so that he could master it the next time.  We'll, if his 2013 year is any indication, he did just that: winning the year's first major in a nail-biting and gutsy playoff, contending again at the British, finishing very high in the season's standings, and just completing a torrid stretch of three major victories in his native Australia.  In short, rather than shriveling up in defeat, he gained strength from it.  Indeed, he even stated at the time, as reporters were asking him if his terrible loss meant that he wasn't destined to win a major, "No, in fact, it has shown me just the opposite: that I can win a major, that I belong to be there down the stretch, that my hard work is paying off."  Now, unfortunately for me, I'm not Adam Scott's sport performance guy, but if I were, here is what I would have preached to him in 2012 that I think every athlete needs to know about the value of losing.
                       Learning from loss: Every loss has a crucial juncture, a crisis point that we would like to go back to and re-do if we could.  Those moments are the ones to investigate. Did they come from a technical weakness or from a psychological one, or, from a combination of the two?  Or, did it stem from improper preparation?  Put the loss on an x-Ray machine and go through it, detail by painful detail.  Doing so will both teach you to avoid those mistakes in the future, and will inure you to the shame of losing.  Because one thing I can guarantee you of for certain: if your performance is only motivated by the fear of losing, you will lose often, gain little satisfaction from your victories, and not grow as an athlete or person.  You cannot go for broke when you are clenching the till so fearfully.
                       Practice to lose.  In our winner culture, we have become so loss-averse that we think that in order to have winners, we must train winners.  But, often a top athlete is only tested in defeat.  And so, the top athletes often train under conditions where winning is almost impossible, so that flaws and mental weaknesses can be exposed rather than hidden.  Such practices include playing against stronger players, devising pressure situations in practice, and most of all, analyzing what broke down in those situations.  In order for such an analysis to be truly effective, it should be conducted with a ruthless honesty and relentless compassion at one and the same time.  Shame breeds fear which increases the odds that we are going to play from a protective rather than an appetitive position.
                       Losing and dying:  Many athletes equate losing with dying.  They might not be conscious of this association, but it is there.  And how could it not be, if they have  been bred to be winners, if their culture celebrates winners so extravagantly, and if they have lived sheltered from the real consequences of loss?  Perhaps even their parents, in synch with their culture, have adapted an ego orientation with them with regard to their sport participation (“Ego&Mastery”).  Often this athlete reveals himself by the temper tantrums he throws upon losing.  For him, we should burn the ring of falsehood that surrounds him by over-exposing him to loss.  Doing so will test his determination and love for the sport, and will burn away the protective carapace which he has built around himself, sealing him off from learning the lessons of loss. 
        I am not preaching losing for the sake of humiliation.  I do not think humiliation is a good training method.  But, on the same token, there are very serious negative consequences to training our young people with an eye toward winning rather than with an eye toward process.  I will leave you with a quote from one of sport's most loss-averse losers, a character whose downfall is only mirrored in the pages of Greek tragedy, Lance Armstrong, and his attitude toward losing: "I like to win.  But more than anything, I can't stand the idea of losing, because to me, that equals death."  So, let's raise athletes with a stronger sense of themselves than that.  Let's look loss right in the eye, so we are winning with joy rather than relief.  Let's learn from loss.