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.

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