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Stop and smell the roses

by Dr. Alan Goldberg, Competitive Advantage


One of the biggest problems that I see in sports today is our obsessive preoccupation with winning and being number one. Don't get me wrong! I like winning as much as the next guy. And by itself, striving to be the best is not such a bad thing. On the contrary! I think it's incredibly valuable to be in the habit of organizing your life around hard work and the pursuit of excellence. As a result, you and your athletes will ultimately achieve more. However, when you continually demand and expect perfection of yourself and others, when you come down really hard on both yourself and them whenever they fall short, you'll be setting yourself up for a lot of sub-par performances and a bundle of misery.

Because of the nature of your job as a coach, you are continually under a tremendous amount of pressure from a number of fronts. First off, you're probably grossly underpaid. Most coaches don't exactly make the big bucks. Second, like far too many coaches, you're probably under-appreciated. Coaches always seem to get tons of feedback whenever they are doing things wrong, and rarely hear about it when they do things right! Furthermore, you are often expected to win all the time and when you don't, you tend to catch a lot of flak from all your "supporters." In addition, your skill and effectiveness as a teacher is constantly measured by how much you "produce." Therefore, people wrongly assume that you're not a good coach unless you have a winning record. And finally, one other added benefit to joining the coaching profession: There are very few jobs out there where you get to have highly qualified "Joe Public" evaluate your job after every single practice and game.

In an unforgiving way our sport-crazed society demands that you be perfect. The news media, fans and parents all expect you to be a "real" winner, i.e. to produce a winning record. As a consequence, you are put into an unenviable, no-win position. When your team does win, several possible outcomes occur that directly or indirectly diminish your victory. First, your win was expected and therefore you get less credit for it. Second, maybe the "experts" find something to criticize in your victory; for example, you didn't win by a large enough margin. Or maybe your team just played poorly according to them. Third, some of your coaching decisions were considered to be suspect by all those in the "know." Or, worse yet, the "experts" frequently take away your victory by asking you to focus on the next game, the next opponent or the next competition. In other words, when you succeed, you're allowed about 20 minutes to actually savor the victory before someone asks you, "So what are you going to do for me tomorrow?" However, if you lose, you catch all forms of hell.

There's no question that our sports dominated culture leans towards the perfectionistic. Truth be told, we are never satisfied with anything short of an unrealistic, perfect ideal. For example, in the 2000 Olympics we got to see swimmer Summer Sanders become the most decorated female swimmer in history when she won her 7th and 8th gold medals. However, someone started an idiotic undercurrent that Summer's medals did not mean as much because they were only from relays and not individual events. Does this bizarre way of reasoning mean that individual athletes who participated in a team sport on a gold medal winning squad should also feel diminished because they didn't win an individual gold? Please!!!!! Give me a break!!!! Being an Olympic athlete means that you are in an elite group of the best athletes in the world. Winning a gold medal of any kind means that you and your team are considered to be the best in the world.

As a coach, it is important that you resist falling into the perfectionism trap with both your athletes and yourself. Just because others may try to force their unrealistic standards on you, doesn't mean that you have to pass their idiotic and performance-disrupting approach on to your athletes. You, above everyone else should know that there is no perfect in sports. Continually expecting perfection and refusing to settle for anything less is a dead end that leads to unhappiness, poor performance and ultimately burnout.

What does this specifically look like? When your athletes or team perform well, reinforce them for it regardless of the outcome. Catch them doing things right. There is no more powerful form of motivation than positive reinforcement and feedback. Yes, they probably could have done better. In fact, you can always do better. However, continually dwelling on an athlete's or team's shortcomings and mistakes will only erode confidence and kill motivation. Don't be stingy with your praise when your players perform well. Don't have unreasonable parameters of how you measure what's praise worthy and what's not. If you do, you won't be helping your athletes become stronger. On the contrary! You'll be slowly weakening them.

Use this same kind of reasoning with yourself. Do not expect yourself to be perfect. Do not highlight and over exaggerate your shortcomings as proof that you have failed to reach this ideal. Push yourself to be the best, but then forgive yourself and your athletes when perfection is not achieved.

There is a wonderful example of the futile quest of perfectionism in Greek mythology. Sisyphus was a mortal who was punished by the gods for his wrong doings with the following task. He had to push a huge round boulder up to the very top of a hill. To get the boulder up there, Sisyphus had to exert a tremendous amount of effort. The gods told him that once he got the boulder to the top, he would be finished with his punishment and could return to his normal life. Unfortunately for Sisyphus, however, there was no end to this task. Once he reached the top, the boulder immediately rolled down to the other side, causing him to have to begin the whole process all over again. Since the top of the hill was rounded and the boulder would always roll down one side or the other, Sisyphus could never really successfully accomplish his job. He was therefore cursed for eternity pushing the boulder up one side of the hill and then another.

This is a perfect metaphor for the destructive quest for perfection. Simply put, there is no perfection in sports. It is an impossible ideal. Strive to be the best but don't expect it. Get your athletes to pursue excellence and perfection, but don't expect it!

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