Friday, February 23, 2018

Failing Faster - Strategies for Moving Through Stressful Situations

In an episode of his "Finding Mastery" podcast from winter 2016, high performance psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais mentions that there are three stages that we move through in stressful situations:
  • Mental
  • Emotional
  • Craft/Skill
I would consider most situations in which we fail to be stressful so I think that we should examine what it means to move through these stages in those situations. I interpret this simply as:
  • Mental: Recognizing/being aware of things not going as we had intended
  • Emotional: "Well, crap. That was wrong/bad/ugly. I suck."
  • Craft/Skill: Noticing specifically what it was that went wrong, making adjustments
I think that there are plenty of variations of what that progression looks and sounds like; some are faster or slower, harder or easier to navigate. What those thoughts sound like in our heads and the frequency and/or intensity of those thoughts have some influence over how long this process can take.

If I want to free my athletes to execute at their best then I should do three things:
  • Give them tools to manage their thoughts and progression through these stages
  • Be aware of how they are managing and progressing
  • Give feedback that is appropriate in timing and content with respect to those stages
While the untrained mind can make it through these stages, I can certainly help athletes to accelerate the process. To do so, I must provide them with tools to move through the each stage in order to free them up to hear and effectively apply feedback or move on to execute a skill. The tools I use for accelerating are a proactive thought cycle and mindfulness in the manner of Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis (more about the book here). (Click the links to see how to bring both skills to your athletes.) The short version of a proactive thought cycle is that if we spend time prior to skill execution planning how we will execute, we can minimize dissonant or jarring thoughts and feelings because our thoughts are already in a more positive voice. This dovetails with mindfulness during execution, which encourages us to notice how we are executing without judging. Together, these two tools allow athletes to be aware of what is happening as it is happening as well as to dampen any emotional response. These actions streamline their movement through the first two stages above. It is easier for them to work on what they are thinking (skill execution) if they are already in control of how they are thinking (self talk).

As a coach, I need to learn what my athletes look like and and sound like when they fail (or think that they failed). If I watch them, they will give me physical/audible signs of their thoughts. Some of those are easier to spot than others and I can use those signs as starting points for conversations about how they are processing what they are doing. I like to say things like, "I noticed you doing/saying X after that play. Can you help me understand what I saw/heard? What was going through your mind?" I then make mental notes about how each athlete tends to respond so I can watch/listen for those signs in the future. When I see those signs then I understand which stage an athlete is in. If I see an athlete get stuck in a particular stage, I want to give them an opportunity to move themselves through that stage before exposing them to more feedback. I want to give them the opportunity to manage themselves before I choose to step in.

If I see them get stuck in particular stage, I can intervene and remind them how to use their tools to more effectively move on from the previous play. Part of this intervention is accurately diagnosing which stage they are in. I want to give them feedback that is appropriate for that stage so that what I say is timely and helpful for what they are going through. I should recognize that if an athlete is still processing mentally or emotionally and I am giving them skill feedback, I can't expect them to assimilate the feedback very well. The same would be true if I give them feedback about a stage that they have already moved through. If I am drawing their attention back to something that they have already moved on from, I better have a good reason for doing so because I going to force them to change mental directions. This goes back to my desire to free them up to perform at their best. I should be aware of what my feedback is setting them up to do next.

We shouldn't prevent our athletes from failing but we should teach them how to fail and how to fail faster. The faster and more effectively they can fail, the sooner they will be ready to succeed.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Learning About Failing

This was originally written in 2014 and published on my personal blog

Some guys buy new cars. Some guys try dating younger women. If I am dealing with a mid-life crisis, I am doing so by learning to skateboard again. Inspired by Bones Brigade: An Autobiography and my inevitable arrival in my 40's, I decided to learn to skate again. At first, I just wanted to be on a board again, I wanted to ride but that turned out to not be enough. I wanted to relearn some tricks, I wanted to do a little more than just roll down the street. So last week, I rolled down the street outside of my house in a quest to relearn the ollie.

The first thing I relearned was not the ollie, but insecurity. I had ventured outside on a weekday, shortly after school had ended for the day. First I noticed a group of kids turning on to my street, then, almost immediately, I noticed how uncomfortable I was to be seen by them. My mind quickly filled with thoughts of embarrassment and negativity so I decided to skate down to a nearby park. I am a grown man, confident in most respects, and I was hurrying away from a bunch of middle school kids because I didn't want them to see me. See me doing what, exactly? See me doing something that didn't belong to me anymore, something that had been taken over by a younger generation. I was trespassing on uncertain ground. This territory may or may not belong to those kids, but it sure didn't belong to me anymore. I didn't want to be caught trespassing by the people that I perceived as holding the land now.

But as I skated off to the park, safely avoiding being seen by those innocents, I realized that my fear was not just of being seen doing something that an adult shouldn't be doing. I was scared that they would see me being bad at it. As I arrived at the park, I found that there were a few cars and I realized that it was almost inevitable that there would be witnesses to my fumblings. I wanted to avoid being seen because I believed that I would be seen failing. There is a vulnerability inherent in failure, and that feeling was far more frightening to me than being caught crying or locking my keys in my car. The feeling was closer to what I imagine it would feel like if I had to admit that I was illiterate. I am an adult and I should already be good at the stuff I do, right? In general, adults try new things like different restaurants or drinks. We don't tend to try to do new things, things that involve learning and *gasp* failing. (I think yoga is an exception here. I wonder why the vulnerability is not as present here.) If we do something that we aren't good at at this point in our lives, we do so ironically, like playing in a kickball league where we can all suck together before we go drink and laugh about how bad we all are. This is not ironic for me, this is an effort to reclaim a neglected territory, overgrown with the weeds of age. I must relearn something before I can relearn any tricks. I must relearn how to overcome my fear of failure and the vulnerability that accompanies it.

The awareness of my fear and vulnerability is teaching me another valuable lesson as a coach. I ask my players to try to new things. I put them in positions to fail every day. I understand that failure is part of learning but do they? Even if they do understand that (as I do), does that alleviate the fear and vulnerability that they must feel? My skateboarding experience tells me that there is no rationalization that can make those feelings go away. I am able to learn and, therefore, fail in relative anonymity but the athletes in my care are not afforded that same anonymity. They are going to fail in front of me and their peers and they are going to fail because my practice plans are designed to be challenging.  I am glad that I have recently learned what that fear of failure feels like again so that I can better account for it and better assist my players as they struggle with it. As coaches, we talk about the fear of failure as a cliché but we tend to be far removed from that fear as a real thing that confronts us daily.

I haven't figured out how to make the fear and vulnerability go away but I have a newfound respect for my players as they battle with those feelings. That respect drives me to help them, to give them the freedom to be vulnerable in public and in front of people who they badly want to impress. I don't yet know how to best create that atmosphere for my teams but I believe that it begins with my example. I further believe that I must acknowledge fear and vulnerability every day, not directly but in my planning, in my evaluation, and in my feedback.

I work with athletes but I coach human beings. Living, breathing, thinking, feeling human beings. If I want them to succeed, to move closer to their potential, then I must manage the factors that interfere with that success. Not a bad lesson to learn from a skateboard.

(I'll be back next week with what I have learned about managing failure since writing this. Hope to see you back here then.)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

My Coaching Framework - More than a Mission Statement

I want to inspire coaches to become mindful, purposeful, and proactive in their coaching and help them create and develop the tools to do so.

That's a mission statement and while it can look good as a tagline, I believe that much more needs to be explained and, more importantly, done in order to give it life. There is a framework that gives this statement meaning and purpose.

The three key words in that statement are mindful, purposeful, and proactive. Those words can be interpreted in different ways and can have different inferences attached. This is what those three words mean to me in the context of coaching and learning.
  • Mindful: engaged with and aware of self, surroundings, and situation (without judgement to gain wisdom)
  • Purposeful: possessing clear goals, meanings, and intentions
  • Proactive: creating situations that move towards goals and anticipate future needs and changes
A brief addendum to the idea of mindfulness is that being "engaged with and aware of" should come without judgement as often as possible. The less time we spend getting caught up in good/bad/right/wrong terminology, the easier it becomes to gain understanding and wisdom.

Helping others to be purposeful requires that I be purposeful myself. To that end, I want to illustrate the framework that I am using to exist and function in a teaching/learning environment. I recognize that there are different frameworks that can be constructed and I encourage you to create your own after engaging in research and introspection. A deep knowledge and incorporation of this framework allows all that I do in teaching and learning to flow from it and retain coherency. I believe that this coherency is perhaps the most important manifestation of purposefulness.

I believe that being purposeful and proactive go hand in hand. The work of creating a rich and coherent framework must come before I apply it to my coaching. I think that I must then help the athletes to understand the framework I am creating around and with them. The other end of the spectrum is what I think of as "Titanic coaching", where coach and athlete don't know what they are trying to sail around until after they run into it. (This is a form of reactive coaching, which I'll have more to say about in the future.) While the path of learning may not be straight, we can still define that path clearly, which will help us be more efficient and successful in our coaching and learning.

So the most engaging, meaningful, and productive coaching and learning I can do is a product of the deliberate creation of a framework and the sharing of that framework with those I teach and learn with. By sharing and modeling this work, we encourage those around us to adopt similar efforts.

Here are the pillars of my personal coaching framework:
  • Growth Mindset: Almost everything we do is a skill or is composed of skills rather than fixed talents or abilities. We can improve our skills through deliberate practice.
  • Proactive Thinking/Focus Cycle: Our typical thought process is reactive, which leaves us feeling as though we do not have as much control over our thoughts and actions as we really do. Shifting to a proactive thinking cycle frees us to perform closer to our current potential.
  • Mindfulness and Single Item Focus: Being aware of the skills we are performing as well as how we would like to perform them, often to the exclusion of other things, helps us to clarify our performance as well as to shape how we want to perform in the future.
  • Shared Language and Vision: As coaches, we are at our best when we fully engage our athletes. To fully engage an athlete, we must deliberately work on building a language that is understood by both. Further, we must use that language to articulate what we want to accomplish together.
  • Coherency and Consistency: We are more likely to understand and trust people who are clear and consistent in their intentions and actions. To more effectively teach, I must always work to keep an athlete's trust by being constant in a sea of change.
Over the years that I have taught, coached, and learned I have read plenty about each of those subjects. So far, these are the books that I consider to be foundational to what I believe and seek to put into practice. While there are many excellent books that also explore the same topics, the books below represent either the closest to source materials or have been the most impactful that I have encountered to date.

Road Trips (and Development) Aren't All About the Destination

Let's say you and I lived in Omaha, Nebraska and one day I woke up and wanted to go on a road trip. "Let's go west!" I cry...