Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Failure as a Diagnostic Tool

Liat and I were hiking the other day, and we were talking about our experiences as kids and why in the world we are both so competitive, and how that idea of competition, why we do it and what it means to us. Hiking is nice that way, it’s like an extended philosophy session.

I think that competition can be very healthy, but I think also that the desire to compete can have its roots in both unhealthy and healthy ideas. One of the challenges that we face as athletes, as coaches, as teachers is ferreting out how we (or our clients) feel about competition, and helping them to see that competition is nothing but an opportunity to turn failure into success. And I say this because any action we do can be improved, regardless of how we place in a competition.

The problem here is, how do you view that idea? Do you feel burdened by the fact that you could have done it better? Is it a failure that leaves you feeling less than you could be, frustrated, and upset? Or do you view the things you could do better as an opportunity to find things you can work on? The difference here can mean the difference in long-term love of your sport, happiness in competition, healthy attitudes in competition, and even your ability to successfully teach your sport! Are you unknowingly encouraging negative self-reflection in your students because you do it yourself?

When my husband was young, he joined the cross-country team at his high school. He had never run before, but he was lean, wiry and fast from playing soccer for years. His new team ran around the track for two days, and then went on a four-mile run. Tom was the slowest, having never run a distance like that before. When he got back, he was exhausted, and frustrated. The coach praised those who were fast and had finished first, and did not tell young Tom that with time, practice and technique, he would improve. He did not find anything in what Tom had done that was a success, no matter how small, leaving Tom to feel that he was not talented at this sport, and could never be a success at it. His failure was paramount. His failure defined his future in the sport. Over the course of his life, this singular experience informed the way he felt about himself, how he defined himself.

I think about this when I think about teaching skiing. The power of a coach or a teacher is immense, as is the responsibility. You have in that moment, the chance to change a person’s life forever. To help them redefine themselves, to believe in themselves in a way that they possibly never have before.

When I coach any of the sports that I teach in, I think about this as my first priority. Help the client to see himself or herself in a new light. And more importantly, turn their failures into a tool they can use to make new breakthroughs in their sport.

Take a look at tennis. Most people have a horrible backhand, and a favorite forehand shot. If you were to track the shots they made during a practice, you’d see them practicing that great down the line forehand, ripping the cover off the ball, sending it screaming down the line. This player would look intimidating, tough, and hard to beat. And sure enough, if you were to play them in a match, if you gave that guy a ball in the right place, when he had the opportunity to hit it down the line, he’d take a point off you every time.

But look at the rest of his game. He is most likely working around every ball, trying to turn each ball into his favorite, point-winning shot. He will run around his backhand and hit a bad forehand. He will, if you are patient, beat himself.

Now this guy, with this unbeatable down the line shot and no other tools in his arsenal can look at a match in two ways. It is a game to be won with his fearsome weapon that he has honed over time, or it is an opportunity to test where he is so he can develop a complete game and be a better player over all.

Here is the sticking point. What makes one client feel one way about competition, winning and failure, and another feel the opposite way? I think it has to do with early experiences like Tom’s with his cross-country coach. There are a lot of experiences that can mold the way we feel about ourselves, and what competition means to us, (for instance, kids who don’t get enough validation for their successes will see competition as an opportunity to win love or worth from parents who value “success” over experience).

I want to think for a moment about the coach’s ability to infuse the client with a NEW sense of purpose in competition, regardless of their early life experience.

Lets say that we managed to get our hands on Mr. Down The Line. What if we could spend a day with him, and watch him lose his match to an average player with an assortment of average shots and no winning weapon. Mr. Down the Line is down on himself. He has failed. He trained hard, and did not win. His feeling is one of loss, diminished sense of self, and sadness. He probably will go work out the next day and hone that fearsome weapon into something even faster, even closer to the net, even more backspin on it, until it seems unbeatable.

But if I could spend a couple of minutes with him, I would ask him to think about the fact that this match, which he wants so badly to win, is an opportunity simply to see where he is in his skill set. If he can see the match this way, he will perhaps notice that he could use a decent backhand, that his opponent is adept at getting to the net, so some sprint speed might help, that if he had a terrific lob, one of the toughest shots in tennis, (especially because it takes touch, and discipline) he would certainly have a better chance of winning.

In this way, using “failure” as a diagnostic tool, a client can see that perhaps they can leave their Forehand Down the Line shot for a few weeks, and concentrate instead on the skills that are lacking. I always tell my clients, lets find the thing that you are the WORST at. And then let’s drill it until it is your strength. In this way, you have a list of skills you are constantly eliminating as impediments to success, and turning them into strengths.

Imagine the feeling this client could have suddenly looking at competition as a way to determine his weaknesses, training for three weeks to remove them or turn them into strengths, and looking forward to the next competition to see if he had trained them hard enough, if he needs more work on them, or if he has a new weakness that needs work. Eventually, he will be a total athlete, well rounded, with a toolbag full of skills, some always better than others, PLUS his wicked down the line shot.

If we could get this guy to change his attitude toward competition to view it, and any “failures” within it as diagnostic tools, and to be excited to uncover new weaknesses and change them instead into strengths, over time he will learn to love competition because it is a tool that helps him truly excel at the sport that he loves. You have done this guy a big favor. He doesn’t compete to win anymore, winning is a byproduct of using competition and training wisely. He doesn’t strive for self worth through his medal collection, his worth is defined internally now through his new work ethic, or (even better) his worth is no longer tied to his performance in sports, leaving him emotionally free to try hard, the fear of failure is gone, because failure is something he loves now. Failure is the pointer that shows him what he gets to work on next.

When I apply this theory to my skiing, it can get a bit overwhelming. My list of weaknesses is long. But rather than letting it overwhelm me and give me a sense that I can never accomplish it, I shuffle my weaknesses in order of their super-suckiness. What do I suck the most at? Skiing on Ice. No, scratch that, I am even worse at skiing on frozen coral reef. Refrozen spring snow. I cannot ski at all on that.

Oh, this is exciting! How formidable would I be as a competitor, how much of a fantastic teacher will I be if I can conquer frozen coral reef? Good lord, can you imagine being able to Josh Foster your way down the steepest, gnarliest, least forgiving frozen fingers of death? Lets make THAT a strength!

How do we do that? Read everything we can get our hands on about skiing in icy conditions (Oh, MAN am I excited about the movement Matrix for this reason!), watch video of people doing it. Try it on frozen groomers. Graduate to frozen crud, that’s not so steep. Get up early before the sun warms it up in the spring and put in the time on the worst stuff you can find. Get frustrated. Reward yourself for skiing in stuff you hate, for challenging yourself to try anyway, by skiing something easy and ego boosting after the sun comes out. Just one or two quickies that make you feel like the king of the world (This would be 10 minutes of practicing that down the line shot in a 90 minute workout). Keep doing it until you suck less.

Then do it until you own it. Then test yourself and realize that you now suck at powder skiing, tree skiing, chutes, steeps, bootpacking, whatever, and make it your strength.

Failure is an athlete’s greatest ally. The way we measure where we are and what skills we need to move forward in our sport without fear. In turning failure from a self-defining, worth breaking harridan into our favorite best friend, we free ourselves from fear of failure. Imagine what you could try if you were not only not AFRAID of failure, but excited about it? And then, imagine the scope of your possibilities for success.


Anonymous said...

You could relate this to the neurobiology underlying motivation. Reward feelings relate to pulses of dopamine in the brain. Anything can elicit a pulse- a success in sports, a positive social interaction, viewing art, etc. We then feel motivated to further pursue these sources of dopamine. There are two kickers though (aside from issues of addiction which I won't go into). The first is that, as Peter Sterling writes, "satisfaction cannot be stored". Dopamine pulses are transitory events. We need constant stimulation to stay satisfied. Not only that, but (and this is kicker #2) dopamine is secreted only when an experience slightly exceeds expectation. This is why our past accolades don't feel so rewarding anymore. This also explains the curse of the child with super acheiver parents or the has-been celebrity.
The good news is that we can pretty easily turn our "failures" into sources of satisfaction. As in "Wow, I don't really suck quite as much as I thought at this." dopamine pulse. or "Wow I am getting better." dopamine pulse again. Pretty much exactly as you describe learning to ski on ice.

This is how I learned statistics.

The Catharine Chronicles said...

This poses an interesting question, as does Lisa's response regarding the neurobiological response that drives us. I have said for as long as I can remember that I am not a competitive person; I don't like competition, don't seek it out, don't thrive o it. But if I look at the facts of my life, I find that this is really the opposite of the truth. Secretly, I love to compete, particularly in situations were I stand a good chance of winning. I truly do not care for gambling because gambling is (poker notwithstanding) a game of chance, not skill. In areas where I know I excel (as a writer, as a singer) I have willingly offered myself up for competition, and taken my defeats well. I recently submitted a story to a literary journal and finished "out of the money," as they say. I was bummin'. I am, after all, me... fabulous of the fabulous, am I not? Or so I'm told by all who love me. But Meridian was kind enough to send me a copy of the journal when it printed. And all three of the winning stories were head-and-shoulders better, more complete, more polished than mine. My "failure" was simply in my inability to have a benchmark, a standard with which to compare myself, so I could achieve a quality of story equal to those who won. Your coaches (editors) can tell you all day long that you're ready for the race, but until you're there, going up against other competitors, it is impossible to gauge whether this is actually, practically true or not.

As you said, we all know what we do well. It's knowing what we do poorly and setting about trying to fix it that gets us through. In triathlon, my strongest sport is swimming, my weakest cycling. I will be swimming this weekend. But I have to have bitch-slap sessions with myself to get on the bike. That might be human nature. God, how we love doing what we're good at.

As for being daunted by prospects, I think my status as novitiate serves me here. I have no idea what I'm getting myself into or how to go about it. The trainer says, "Go there and do this," I go there and do it. The coaches tell me to "Go over there and work on this," that's where I go and what I work on. Soon enough, I'll know enough to be worried. But I have 270 days to train, and for a little while, ignorance is bliss.


a said...

Lisa, you are SO right. You get to tune in to the "High" that you get from challenging your brain. Its a phenomenal feeling. Thanks for posting this, its a GREAT scientific side of the theory!! Thanks for stopping by!