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.

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