Thursday, August 20, 2015

Coaching through failure

Over two years ago, the folks over at the athenahealth kindly invited me to submit columns to their Health Leadership Forum, and I have done so on an occasional basis since them. As I recently reviewed the columns, I realized that my own thoughts on the topics of leadership and coaching have evolved a bit, and I thought my readers over here at Not Running A Hospital might enjoy witnessing the transition. So for several days, I will be reprinting the posts from the Forum over here. Comments are welcome at the original site and here. Today's reprint (retitled and with the real names included) is from a post dated July 11, 2014, "How I Coach."

In this season of world class soccer, I hope you’ll forgive a short autobiographical moment from my most important pastime: coaching girls soccer. I’ve learned so much from these children over more than two decades and have put many of those lessons in my book Goal Play!

In fact, my current slogan is, “If you can effectively coach 12-year-olds in soccer, you can run an academic medical center!” This is not a statement about the comparative emotional ages of doctors and 12-year-old girls: It is a realization about how people of all ages deal with what is often the distress of learning and how you, as a leader, can help encourage them to grow as part of a learning organization.

Today’s story is about disappointment, when a member of your team has failed and feels inadequate to the task at hand. How do you present a compelling and honest narrative to a discouraged person so that he or she can move on, gain confidence, and remain a productive and happy member of the team?

The setting is a rainy, cold, and muddy soccer game, in which Liisa was playing goalkeeper in the second half of the game and let the two winning shots get past her. She was greatly discouraged and was convinced she was accountable for losing the game. She compared herself to her teammate Abby, who had successfully defended the goal in the first half, and she went home and told her parents that this would be her last soccer season. Instead, she would play basketball, a sport in which she felt more accomplished.

Although I talked to her and reassured her right after the game, I know that a more persuasive approach might be possible once a few hours had passed.

Here’s the email I sent:
Dear Liisa,
I know you were so sad after yesterday’s game, and I felt very badly for you. I tried to cheer you up a bit, but I know it was not the right time, and I didn’t succeed. Would you mind if I offered some more thoughts now?
Let me start with the basics: You are a terrific person, a great team player, and a natural leader among your teammates. Plus, you are an excellent soccer player and, yes, an excellent goalie. We all, your teammates and coaches, admire and respect you.
The playing conditions yesterday were awful for you as goalie. In fact, they were worse for you than for Abby because the field got wetter and wetter as the game went along. The ball got muddier and muddier, and it also became more saturated with water. As a result, it was increasingly hard to hold on to. Also, because of the extra weight, it had more momentum when it was kicked, making it extremely difficult to catch or stop.
When you are a goalie, it is easy to remember the balls that get by, but you forget about all the other times you saved the play and rescued the team from defensive lapses. You did that plenty of times, plus you also “directed traffic” from your position as goalie, helping your teammates respond to and anticipate what the other team was doing. I will tell you that most goalies your age are not as good as you are on all of those counts. That is a very special set of skills, requiring presence and maturity.
The setting is a rainy, cold, and muddy soccer game, in which Laura (name changed) was playing goalkeeper in the second half of the game and let the two winning shots get past her. She was greatly discouraged and was convinced she was accountable for losing the game. She compared herself to her teammate Alice, who had successfully defended the goal in the first half, and she went home and told her parents that this would be her last soccer season. Instead, she would play basketball, a sport in which she felt more accomplished.
Although I talked to her and reassured her right after the game, I know that a more persuasive approach might be possible once a few hours had passed.
Here’s the email I sent:
Dear Laura,
I know you were so sad after yesterday’s game, and I felt very badly for you. I tried to cheer you up a bit, but I know it was not the right time, and I didn’t succeed. Would you mind if I offered some more thoughts now?
Let me start with the basics: You are a terrific person, a great team player, and a natural leader among your teammates. Plus, you are an excellent soccer player and, yes, an excellent goalie. We all, your teammates and coaches, admire and respect you.
The playing conditions yesterday were awful for you as goalie. In fact, they were worse for you than for Alice because the field got wetter and wetter as the game went along. The ball got muddier and muddier, and it also became more saturated with water. As a result, it was increasingly hard to hold on to. Also, because of the extra weight, it had more momentum when it was kicked, making it extremely difficult to catch or stop.
When you are a goalie, it is easy to remember the balls that get by, but you forget about all the other times you saved the play and rescued the team from defensive lapses. You did that plenty of times, plus you also “directed traffic” from your position as goalie, helping your teammates respond to and anticipate what the other team was doing. I will tell you that most goalies your age are not as good as you are on all of those counts. That is a very special set of skills, requiring presence and maturity.
Briana Scurry, the goalie for the US national women’s team, was once asked if she thought about the balls that got by her–and plenty did. Her answer, “Never! I only think about the ones I stopped. When I plan for the next game, I visualize success. If another ball gets past me in a game, I immediately put it behind me and get back to visualizing success.”
I don’t know if you feel you can do what Briana did, but it is worth thinking about.
It’s ok to feel sad about yesterday’s experience, but you must believe me that you in no way let anyone down. Your teammates and coaches understood totally what you were up against, and they admired you for trying your best. And, after all, isn’t that the most we can hope for?
So, take yesterday as one of those important learning experiences. When adversity strikes, cry if you need to, but then walk off with your head up high, smiling, and say, “I’m a great goalie!” Because, my dear, Laura, you are. Indeed, you are more than that. You are a great person, and no one can take that away from you.
Fondly, Paul
And here’s how this bright young lady responded:
Thank you very much Coach Paul for this thoughtful email. I will try to continue visualizing success and put yesterday behind me. This was a very kind and well thought out email and I appreciate it very much. See you on Wednesday!!
Thanks again!
Laura
Success! We are reminded by this story that the leader’s most important attribute is empathy. Let’s employ it to help our team members visualize success by learning from the failures they encounter.
- See more at: http://www.athenahealth.com/leadership-forum/coaching-through-failure#sthash.9nboA8QN.dpuf
Briana Scurry, the goalie for the US national women’s team, was once asked if she thought about the balls that got by her–and plenty did. Her answer, “Never! I only think about the ones I stopped. When I plan for the next game, I visualize success. If another ball gets past me in a game, I immediately put it behind me and get back to visualizing success.”
I don’t know if you feel you can do what Briana did, but it is worth thinking about.
It’s ok to feel sad about yesterday’s experience, but you must believe me that you in no way let anyone down. Your teammates and coaches understood totally what you were up against, and they admired you for trying your best. And, after all, isn’t that the most we can hope for?
So, take yesterday as one of those important learning experiences. When adversity strikes, cry if you need to, but then walk off with your head up high, smiling, and say, “I’m a great goalie!” Because, my dear, Liisa, you are. Indeed, you are more than that. You are a great person, and no one can take that away from you.
Fondly, Paul
And here’s how this bright young lady responded:
Thank you very much Coach Paul for this thoughtful email. I will try to continue visualizing success and put yesterday behind me. This was a very kind and well thought out email and I appreciate it very much. See you on Wednesday!!
Thanks again!
Liisa
Success! We are reminded by this story that the leader’s most important attribute is empathy. Let’s employ it to help our team members visualize success by learning from the failures they encounter.

5 comments:

Robert Kanterman said...

I have been reading your blog from some time and have learned quite a bit from you. Today's entry was my favorite. Well done.

Robert Kanterman, MD
St. Louis, MO

Paul Levy said...

Thank you so much. The little girls always provide the best inspiration!

Barry Carol said...

I think empathy should be a core value for everyone, not just those in leadership positions. We should also strive to treat other people the way we would want to be treated if circumstances were reversed.

Carole said...

This was by far my favorite too! Hope you don't mind, but the second time I read it I used my name, words like daughter, caregiver to your mother, vision her at peace- just made it from you to me. I cried, and it felt good!!!

kudo's to your parents, and all the positive influences you had in your life to make you the loving and truly amazing man you are today.

Carole said...

To add-
How blessed are those young ladies. Because their coach is a positive role model in their lives they'll grow up to do wonderful things themselves. Continuing to pay it forward- ( goodness )