Saturday, 27 March 2010

Self Sabotaging Teams

I was recently asked to help a coach with an amateur football team, playing at a fairly high level. The team had until recently played so well that they would likely soon be promoted to a higher league. The dilemma as he described it was that now that the team were close to being promoted to the next league, their game was rapidly going downhill. Upon further exploration, the coach reflected that where they conceded a goal, they seemed to lose focus even more and their team tactics went out the window. The coach had begun wondering, had all their wins up till then been a total fluke, were his team self-sabotaging, or what?

Actually, none of the above, as it turns out. What the coach described is incredibly common where the ultimate target has become close enough that they can actually believe in it. In a nutshell, the team were beginning to become distracted by the trophy, not yet in their grasp but now a distinct reality. In sport, being in "the zone" is essential for good play. In other words, thinking only about what's just about to happen, not what has already been, nor what could happen in the future, such as picking up the trophy. Being so close to the trophy that they can almost see themselves holding it is one of the worst performance interfering images as well as one of the best. When on the pitch, the last thing you want as a coach, are your players visualising holding the trophy, getting promoted, when they really need to be preparing for the next tackle, or scoring goals during penalty time.

The second major block to their performance was a magnified fear of messing up. Up until that point, their play had come naturally, the players in a state of what psychologists call "flow". With all the distracting thinking about "what if I miss this shot" or "how could I have just missed that shot" the team began to tense up, over-analyse what they needed to do, get more frustrated with each other, and so make silly mistakes.

These two distractions are possibly the most common reasons why so many professional players make seemingly stupid mistakes when so close to winning the trophy. Missing penalty shots in football and faulty serves in tennis in the last few minutes of the game have been well-publicised.

Is this only relevant in sport? Consider the top saleswoman presenting poorly during the final pitch, or the messed up interview for the job that you're more than qualified to do. This could all be put down to this sort of performance intereference. I have also witnessed teams in the workplace getting ready to receive a performance-related bonus and refusing to alter the course of the project, even though it would have been in the organisation's best interests, simply because the bonus was too close to give up. Or getting increasingly irritated with each, less tolerant of error or disruption. As Pulitzer-winning author Daniel Yegrin wrote in The Prize(1991) "Creativity, dedication, entrepreneurship, talent and technological innovation have always gone hand in hand with greed, corruption, blind political ambition and brute force."

Sometimes just being aware of the impact of this sort of distraction can be enough to overcome it, or it might require further coaching for finding alternative ways of thinking that keep one in flow and adapting to the requirements of here-and-now. For the saleswoman in the final stages of making her pitch, it might require her switching off from thinking at all about the delivery of the project, rather focusing only on what the main concerns or questions of the immediate audience might be, in essence connecting with the people who must first make the decision.

For my coach's team, he gave a talk to the team about switching off from everything but the next shot, something they all readily identified with. He then coached individuals that he noticed needed extra practice or prone to ruminating after making a bad shot. Happily, they recently won 6-1 and so will be promoted into a higher league next season.

The psychology of winning, strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, is to forget about winning and just play every minute as you have trained to.

"I've missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot . . . and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed" – Michael Jordan.

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