Timeout Q&A: Embracing Risk, Failure In Coaching

Purpose2Play: How can coaches cultivate courage when it comes to the “big moments” in competition?

Dr. Cheri Toledo: First of all, preparation is key … build practices around the situations and interactions that players will be facing in competition. By focusing on situational training rather than isolated skill repetition, players will see the connection between the skills they learn in practice and the actual game, and this will ready them to handle pressure situations more effectively. Also, build pressure situations into your practices to help players exercise their poise and calmness muscles.

Second, understand that many times when players choke, or at the least fail to rise to the competitive occasion, it can be due to their perfectionist mindset. Players who try to play (or practice) perfectly lose sight of the goal at hand and end up focusing on past and/or the future plays/skills and how they are perceived. I found this out myself when I discovered a great iPad tennis game that closely simulates real play. While playing this game over the past month or so I’ve been able to see how much I thought about the past bad shots and mistakes and also how I tended to think ahead too much. This reflection helped me see how that approach affected my next play. It’s been a great game to help me focus on my mental game … one shot at a time. This is what we need to help our players learn to do – be in the present moment, one shot, stroke, or serve at a time. As part of this approach, it is imperative that your belief system and the culture you create are centered on playing to win, rather than playing not to lose, because the latter is all about avoiding mistakes and keeping with the status quo … that’s not the place where “big moments” are conquered.

Third, embrace and help your players embrace mistakes; see them as opportunities for growth. Because, ultimately, if we’re not making mistakes we’re not growing or improving. Ask yourself if you are creating an environment where your athletes are learning from their mistakes … or are you a yeller harping on their mistakes. John Kessel, USA Volleyball Director of Sport Development, points out the need to teach players how to “rub out mistakes rather than to rub them in.” We learn best when we are not fearful of making mistakes. In fact, we learn best when we are pushing the limits or our knowledge and skill, and that’s when we’ll be making the most mistakes. So as you ask players to do new things, expect and accept the mistakes – teach them to learn from their mistakes. Force yourself to ignore the mistakes – missed serves, shots, and false starts – and turn your focus and that of your players to what is important: improved skill, play, or performance. Give them skill-based feedback and criticism – they need to know that you approve of them as people and that you trust them to do their best. When there is no punitive result from making a mistake, players will not be trying to avoid them. This will help them make good mistakes and learn to push the limits of their abilities while maintaining a positive attitude and avoiding the perfection downward spiral – shoot for excellence instead.

At a recent event, I heard Mike Scioscia, the LA Angels baseball coach, sum it up this way, “We want to play free” … free of the past and free from the future … playing in the moment. He went on to say that when players play free there is no difference between a regular season game and a play-off game.

Purpose2Play: Is there a right strategy to go about weighing risks when the game is on the line?

Dr. Cheri Toledo: At the micro level – play by play – I want my players taking risks to they build their risk capacity and learn where the edge of their physical and mental boundaries are. They learn how far they can push their skills and have opportunities to build their tolerance for pressure situations. For instance, I may ask a player to serve to Area 5 on the volleyball court – the right back corner as we look at the opponent’s court.  I want her going for this spot even if she struggles with keeping the ball in bounds. However, I don’t want her always failing, so I have to help her technically and psychologically, which means there may be times when I have her to serve to the middle of the court instead.  I have to make this decision based on current and past situations – what that player’s capacity for mentally overcoming mistakes that impact the game outcome.  Hitting this area 75% of the time would be a great goal for this player … something to shoot for and a goal to help her see that she will not be perfect.

At the macro level – the overall match/game – we have to determine if the risk of failure outweighs the possibility of success … and whether or not the risk is worth the possible loss or failure. At times we decide it is worth it and we just go for it – we’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose. At other times, we decide that it’s best to play more conservatively. Let’s go back to my iPad tennis game. The other day I was playing a match where I was down 3 games in the set (one more set loss and I would lose the match).  In addition, I was down 0-40, so it was match point.  I found myself thinking, “One shot at a time … I want to hit this serve right there” and I visualized the path of my serve. As I continued this and focused on one shot at a time, I chipped away at my opponent and won the game.  In fact, by using this mental approach I actually came back and won the match.  What happened with me in this digital game is similar to what can happen with players in an important match.  When they release the internal threat of loss they loosen up and play free … one play, one stroke, one sprint at a time.

The decision to take a risk when the game is on the line is also dependent on the personality and goals of the coach, team, and individual players.  Ask yourself these questions: What are the chances that the risk of failure outweighs the possibility of success?  Will failing be beneficial to your players’ growth?  Are you playing to win or playing not to lose? What is the best decision for this situation?

Last, be sure to debrief practices and matches and games.  Ask everyone (players, coaches, and staff) the following:
•    What did you learn?
•    What can you/we change to get better?
•    How can we have more fun?

I added the last question because when we’re having fun we play looser and will take more risks and we need to remember that it is play and it is a game!

Purpose2Play: Many people perceive failure to be a better option than experiencing the regret that might come from not taking a risk. What can we learn from failure, or a loss?

This shoulda, woulda, coulda mindset is grounded in the past and an attempt to avoid failure – based in a fear of appearing imperfect.  “I wish I would have …  If only I could have … Oh, I should have …” are common fixed mindset thoughts. Failure is seen as a threat because I “should” not have to take risks since I already know how to do what I need to do to be successful – there’s no need to move away from what I already know. If I do something where I might fail, what will people (coach, parent, friends, etc.) think of me?  The growth mindset on the other hand focuses on how can I get better … how can I achieve excellence by overcoming this obstacle?

This makes me think of sports movies like Rudy, Rocky, and The Mighty Macs in which athletes and coaches go all out and when they fail the get up and keep going – I used to tell my athletes to play with wild abandon and leave it all on the court. This approach to competition, from preseason through the playoffs, helps us avoid getting to the end of practice, matches, and seasons without regret.  When we play with wild abandon, we will make mistakes. And when we learn from our mistakes we are on the path to achieve our potential, especially when we accept and even embrace failure. In my latest blog post, Mistake-Maker Risk-Taker, I talked about where we end up when we decide between taking risks and playing it safe.  A fear of failure will push us to play it safe and keep us stuck in the Land of Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda where our only companions are overstuffed garbage bags filled with regret.

So coaches, you need to take risks in order to give your players permission to take risks.  As you are making the shift to this approach, pay special attention to the outer boundaries of your players’ skills (mental, physical, emotional, etc.) and help them push those edges further out.  You are the guide and the expert who gives them the courage to step out of their comfort zones – and you can best do this for them when you are doing it for yourself.  Find coaching peers who will help you push your borders and encourage you to accept and embrace your failures … then just do it.  Think of it this way, you “… are more likely to act [your] way into a new way of thinking than to think [your] way into a new way of acting.”1  So do what you ask of your athletes … go for it!  I say, coach with wild abandon.

Purpose2Play: What’s one of the greatest risks that you’ve seen a coach take (where it’s worked in his/her favor), and why, in your opinion, did it work out?

Dr.  Cheri Toledo: I was at an Illinois State Women’s Volleyball match a few years ago and they really needed to recapture the game momentum in order to win the match. Melissa Myers, the Head Coach, substituted a tall right side hitter for the lone smaller setter on the court. I was thinking, “Who’s going to set?  How are they going to run the offense without a setter? This is a really important point in the match … what is she doing?”  For you volleyball novices, the setter is the quarterback of the team and she runs the offensive. So not having a setter on the floor seemed like a huge risk, but the need for a larger right side blocker to stop the other team’s offense outweighed the need of running the perfect offense on our side. My question for the coach would be, did you practice this rotation?  I do know that in volleyball all players have to set at some point or another – I ran many situational drills in which everyone had to step in and set.  So I am confident that any one of the players on the floor could have set if the ball came to them.

Another issue that came to my mind is the fact that volleyball team dynamics are very, very important. Teams are made up of six players who work in a 30’X30’ square – so the close proximity magnifies the interpersonal dynamics. The nature of the game of volleyball necessitates that individual plays on the ball are interdependent and the sum of the quality of each ball contact produces the final outcome. Players are allowed to hit the ball up to three times before they send it over the net; pass, set, hit is the usual and desired offensive scheme.  The better the pass the better the set can be, and thus the better the hit can be. So while each player was prepared physically for the change, making the substitution changed the dynamic of the team … this may have been the biggest risk and made me wonder if the players would be able to step up mentally and make the needed adjustments.  At this point in the season, Melissa knew her players well and was confident that they could do what was necessary by relying on their training and by trusting one another meet the challenge and achieving a higher level of performance. Melissa pushed her players’ boundaries with that substitution strategy.

It’s important to note that the risk of taking out the setter also had an effect on the other team. There is only a net and a centerline separating the teams, so the opponents were very aware that the setter came out and a non-setter took her place.  I think that they were watching and trying to figure out who was going to set, just like I did.  So if nothing else, it was a great example of gamesmanship – we see it all the time … trying to psych out your opponents by getting their minds off of their play by causing them to wonder about what’s gong on across the net.  It really was a brilliant move and ISU won the game and the match!  So the risk paid off and the players built up their risk and trust muscles, while developing strength for the future.

It takes courage to take risks – so just start.  Help yourself and your athletes build up those risk-taking and mistake-making muscles.

1     Pascale, R., Millemann, M., & Gioja, L. (1998).  Changing the way we change in Ulrich, D. (ed). Delivering results: A new mandate for human resource professionals.  Watertown, MA: Harvard Business Review.

Kim Constantinesco

Kim Constantinesco

As the founder and editor-in-chief of Purpose2Play.com, Kim Constantinesco dives under the surface hype to illuminate heroes in the sports world. Whether talking with the first man with cerebral palsy to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, or the first woman to mountain bike across Afghanistan, Kim has a keen interest in shining the spotlight on ordinary people doing extraordinary things. She believes it's time media starts placing a higher value on the people and communities who are actively doing something to make the world a little better. Previously, she covered the Denver Broncos and the NFL for seven seasons. Her work has been featured on NFL.com, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, The New York Times, and USA Today. She resides in Denver, CO. When not working, she can be found deep in the Rocky Mountains throwing backflips on her snowboard. Follow Kim on Twitter: @KimCon14
Kim Constantinesco

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