Making mistakes when you are part of a team

At the weekend I was listening to Graeme Le Saux talking about the 1998 football world cup and the England team culture in relation to making mistakes. It’s worth recapping Graeme’s key points because there is a powerful message in it for teams in any setting.

Graeme made a mistake in the second game which allowed Romania to score, condemning England to defeat. He felt that the other players were thinking ‘I’m glad it was him and not me’, the team environment was not supportive of each other. Come the next game Graeme was highly conscious that in that environment another mistake could mean the end of his international career. This had consequences, he played more conservatively, not his usual attacking style. I wonder if that is what the coach and his team mates really wanted?

A question I often ask when coaching teams in the workplace is ‘what is the deal between you when somebody makes a mistake?’

It is important to be clear about how we respond and the implications of that for our team’s performance. Do we have each other’s backs or are we just happy that it wasn’t us who made the error?

Altitude’s contribution to England Rugby’s defeat by South Africa

All of the post-match analysis that I have read/heard about this weekend’s rugby test in South Africa has been focused on South Africa’s speed and England’s indiscipline. There is another likely contributory factor that deserves an honourable mention – altitude.

Johannesburg is at 1700m above sea-level, sufficient altitude to have a negative impact on performance if you are not adapted. In a stop/start game like rugby you can start at a high intensity just as at sea level but you will be accumulating more oxygen debt compared to at sea level for the same effort. At some point this catches up with you in the later stages when performance will start to drop off. Fatigue and hence being slower to the ball typically causes sides to give away more penalties. Starting to sound familiar?

What to do about it? There are basically two strategies to performing at altitude. Adapt by living/training at altitude for long enough or arrive and compete straight away. Throw in to the mix that different players respond to hypoxic (low oxygen) training in different ways and you can see why England went for the second option, no doubt judging that being able to train at their home base in Pennyhill outweighed the benefits of being altitude adapted. I’m also curious about whether England considered using a ‘sleep high’ strategy while training at sea level i.e. sleeping in altitude tents.

The second test in a week’s time will be interesting. Will it have been enough time at altitude to have a noticeable impact on England’s performance at the lower altitude (1400m) venue of Bloemfontein?

Got that flow feeling?

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Last week I finally made it to a climbing wall/indoor bouldering for a lesson (left).

I haven’t ‘climbed’ since I was a kid going up trees or playing a game of trying to get along the outside wall of the house without touching the ground so this was an exercise in learning a new skill.

What followed was an object lesson in flow so it’s worth sharing a few salient points.

Remember, 'Flow' is a concept from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which (paraphrasing greatly) says that the level of challenge needs to be in balance with your skill level to achieval an optimal state of complete absorption. Athletes call it being in 'the zone'. You can watch his TEDtalk here.

My instructor Robert started me off doing the type of traversing exercise that I remembered from childhood and as I started to get the hand of the moves he encourage me try different, more challenging moves. The beauty of these indoor climbing walls is the colour coded holds with a big range of difficulty starting with V0 and progressing. At any moment you can easily go to the next level of difficulty so there is no risk of boredom.

There were a couple of things that Robert did which were very impactful. He was able to demonstrate moves in a very simple, visual way which allowed me to picture the move and then have a go. Indeed I found myself relating moves to similar patterns that I was already familiar with e.g. one move was very much like a high jump take off

Then with the safety of the crash mats I was able to keep practicing moves and falling off until I got it – Robert didn’t jump in after each attempt with tips and feedback, he just let me have a quite a few goes before re-demonstrating the move for me and letting me go again.

As with any flow experience the time flies by and in 90 minutes I had progressed from V0 to V2 on the bouldering and was ready to go up the 25m wall with a rope. I can’t wait for the next time.

Loris Karius and the team response

A lot has been written about how the Liverpool football team responded (or didn’t) to goalkeeper Loris Karius at the end of the Champions League final on Saturday after two errors that he made resulted in Real Madrid scoring two goals.

More interesting for me was what happened after his first mistake just after the hour mark. On the one hand the team response from a task point of view was everything the coach could have wanted. Instead of letting their heads go down the Liverpool team attacked and scored an equalising goal within minutes. However their response from a relationship perspective with their goalkeeper may have sowed the seeds for the second error later on which finished their chances of winning the match.

My only data is what I saw on the TV so we have to be careful with the interpretation but there appeared to be minimal interaction between goalkeeper and team mates after his first mistake. In this situation the coach is not in a position to put an arm round the player, offer some appropriate words and help him refocus. He needs his team mates to take a lead in doing this in the moment.

This need for a timely response is as true in business or battle as it is in sport – it is the close colleagues who need to act. Without that intervention what can happen is that we dwell on the mistake we have made and start thinking unhelpful thoughts and experiencing crippling emotions when what we actually need to do is focus on now and carrying out with excellence the skills that we have practiced repeatedly.

The debrief will be fascinating and I would love to be a fly on the wall hearing from all of the players about what happened in those moments and why. 

The take out for all of us is that when a team mate makes a big mistake (and we all will) then the team needs to help the individual regain their focus as quickly as possible. Just trying to rectify the mistake alone isn’t enough.

The power of self belief

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At the start of the winter Ramon Zenhäusern was a little known Swiss skier who if he was known at all it was for being too tall to be a good slalom skier. In an event where many of the top competitors are around 1.70m – 1.80m Ramon towers above them at 2.00m.

It can’t be much fun being continually told that you are too tall and for a few years Ramon plied his trade on the European Cup circuit recording quite a few top 10. Occasional World Cup appearances tended to end in underwhelming performances and plenty of DNFs as he battled to get his long frame down the course although a couple of top 10s hinted at some potential.

Then this year everything was turned on its head. Ending his 2016/17 season with a win in the European Cup he backed up that performance with a another win at the start of the 2017/18 winter. A string of strong results followed and returning to World Cup competition at Christmas he produced 3 solid top 20 performances in a row before making a breakthrough with 4th place in Wengen after a few competitors crashed out. Watching his post race interview the self belief was bursting through as he started to tell himself ‘I can do this, I belong here’. (I remember another 2.00m tall sportsman a few years ago being told that he was too tall to run a fast 100m and should stick to the 400m – look what happened to Usain Bolt).

In the weeks that followed, liberated by his new found belief, Ramon would go on to win his first World Cup race, and then win silver and gold medals in the Winter Olympics. That’s quite some turnaround and not one that can be attributed to new physical skills, just the power of the mind. As Henry Ford said "Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

We can all think of situations that have changed our perspective on what we are capable of. As coaches or leaders in business we can encourage those that we develop into situations where they can build their self belief by making the competition/task challenging enough without it being sink or swim.

Athlete, coach and the third entity

We often expect the coach to share some wisdom which transforms the athlete’s performance or the athlete, pumped up by coaches words, to produce a superhuman effort in competition.

It rarely happens like that and nor should it.

The real magic happens in a different place as I was reminded of yet again this week. It happens in a third place, the relationship between athlete and coach. When this is working at a high level then the athlete and coach can learn and co-create together. Crucially, as the coach, I learnt just as much about coaching as the athlete did about their running during the training session in question. This was partnership at its best.

It is such an important point for coaches and coachees in any field to acknowledge when they are contracting at the start of their relationship. It’s a joint endeavour for which both are responsible.

Using constraints to create meaningful practice

I love this clip of ex World Champion boxer Joan Guzman training a bunch of kids in a gym. Space is tight and he has made full use of all the treadmills to get the kids punching while moving backwards rather than standing around waiting to have their turn in the ring.

The possibilities are endless and the approach is applicable to many different types of learning, not just sport. Time to get creative with those constraints!

Practicing for when it all goes wrong

Marathon season is upon us and I was reflecting back on my 2006 London Marathon when lots went wrong and how I would prepare differently inspired by the story of Seal Team 6’s training for the Bin Laden mission.

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It was my third marathon and for my first one I had been obsessed with learning to drink properly on the run. Racing an elite marathon is treading a tightrope on energy consumption and every extra calorie helps.

I had the bottle size optimised, the concentration of sports drink fine-tuned and could pick bottles of tables at speed with left or right hand. My practice served me well and I was able to wash down a few kilometres worth of extra carbs in those drinks which contributed to two excellent performances.

All well and good, but what if those bottles weren’t there on the table every 5 kilometres? That’s what happened in 2006 and I wasn’t prepared. I got to 5k in about 40th place and no bottle, just wreckage everywhere from the leading groups who had knocked bottles off the tables and they hadn’t been replaced by the volunteers. No worries, it’s only the first of 8 drinks stations I thought. However, the story was repeated at the second table and to make things worse the pace I was running at was faster than I had planned for and it was a cold wet day. Anxiety levels rising, one third into the race, three quarters of an hour without a drink and the prospect of no drink at the next station I backed off the pace and ploughed a lonely furrow to the finish. Although I got the remainder of my drinks and ran what was then a best time of 2hrs 20mins I could and should have been much quicker that day.

Fast forward to Seal Team 6 and their preparation for the Bin Laden mission. they repeatedly practiced in training what they would do if their helicopters crash landed short of the target zone. By the time the mission took off they were well drilled in improvising their way around cock-ups and calamities. Sure enough, one of the helicopters crash landed and yet the team still carried out their mission.

For me, more effective preparation would have involved practicing with the sub-optimal official brand of race drinks which were available every few miles rather than relying on my own rocket fuel mixture at the elite stations every 5km. I could also have had some gels stashed in my shorts for emergencies. Lastly I could have rehearsed the scenario in my mind about the fast pace because the best strategy would have been to stick with the group and improvise on drinks rather than slow down and run solo.

Sometimes it pays to practice a scenario you hope will never materialise.

Bannister the innovator

Roger Bannister was more than just a fast runner. He was an innovator and many of the things he did in pursuit of that record breaking run pushed the boundaries of the time.

For his sub 4 minute mile attempt he enlisted pacemakers, with Chris Brasher running the first two laps and then Chris Chataway taking the tough third lap before Bannister hit the front with just 240m left to the finish. At the time the norm was for runners to just race each other and the winning time was the result of how fast one man could run.

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This sort of team working strategy employed by Bannister was frowned upon by many, indeed some considering it to be unethical or even blatant cheating yet now it is the norm for world record attempts and was taken to a new level with Eliud Kipchoge's 'echelon' formation for the sub 2 marathon attempt.

For the race itself Bannister had a pair of racing shoes (left) hand made by G.T Law & sons and these weighed in at a skinny 4.5 ounces (130 grams). He further shaved some weight by grinding the metal spikes thinner with a grindstone – a focus on technology that the British Skeleton Bobsleigh team would relate to!

Coaching moments - part 2

The second in a series focusing ‘Coaching moments’. A situation we have all experienced, either as participant or observer. Blame.

It might be blaming another person or the situation itself. You know the kind of thing: ‘the report was late because John didn’t complete his part on time’ or ‘I’m not scoring goals because I’m not get good chances created for me’ or ‘why do I keep on getting injured?’

The role of the coach is to create self-awareness. A powerful question could be ‘What do you think you might be contributing to the situation?’

If you want to beat them, join them

Just before Simen Krueger made his bid for victory (Champion thinking 15th Feb) there was another surprising leader of the 30km Skiathlon, Britain’s Andrew Musgrave. This was no early blast to grab 5 minutes of fame on camera but a calculated attempt to win a medal by making a move with less than 15 minutes to the finish. It didn’t quite pay off but a 7th place finish was special. That a skier from a country with no snow should be mixing it with the Norwegians, Canadians and Swiss deep into an Olympic final is worth a closer look.

Four years ago in Sochi Musgrave was back in the pack, several minutes behind the real contenders but his journey to world class had already begun with a brave decision a few years earlier. Realising that if he wanted to compete with the best he had to live like them and learn from them he packed his bags for Norway, learned the language, lived out of a camper van and trained with the best athletes he could find.

I can relate to this as I did something similar in 2003, spending a year in East Africa to learn from the best. For me it was just about self-improvement rather than winning Olympic medals, but it was certainly a life changing experience.

Musgrave’s commitment goes way deeper than my 12 month sabbatical and 6 years later he is still in Norway, winning races there and turning himself into a real contender. On Sunday the results became visible to people outside the small world of cross country skiing. I will be putting some money on a medal in a future World Championships or Beijing 2022

Rounder wheels

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At the 2012 Olympics it was the rumours that British Cycling had developed ‘extra round’ wheels that really got under the skin of their competitors. This week in Pyeongchang it is the skin suits of the British Skeleton Bob team that are causing controversy with their alleged drag reducing seams.

While the scientists will argue over whether these sort of equipment modifications make the sliders go faster and by how much, the real impact may well be all in the mind.

For the recipient of the rounder wheels or rougher seams it is the belief that you have a team behind you leaving no stone unturned that may give your performance a bigger edge than any bit of actual fancy technology. Likewise for a competitor feeling disadvantaged by their 'slower' suit, even if they are not, the belief that they can’t compete can drag their performance down.

On this subject of the mind influencing performance I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Alex Hutchinson’s new book. Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.

Champion thinking - when it all goes wrong

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The first race of the men's Cross Country skiing programme in the Olympics produced plenty of drama and a story to inspire.

In the first 200m Simen Krueger of Norway falls and two other skiers fall on top of him (top left). In a scene that looks more like a game of drunken Twister at a New Year's Eve party the competitors eventually extract themselves from the tangle and rejoin the race at the back of the field. For the commentators its clear, these guys' race is over.

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But for Krueger the drama is only just beginning because he also has a broken pole and in the classic technique where using both poles is critical this is a major handicap. Eventually he reaches one of his team servicemen who can give him a new pole (left) and he is back in the race proper.

Over the next kilometres he works his way back to the field doing his best to minimise the extra energy he needs to use and by halfway when they change skis and techniques he has caught the back of the lead group and can recover a bit. It is important he is there because the Norwegian's are planning on using team tactics to challenge pre race favourite, Dario Cologna and Kreuger has a key supporting role in the plan.

With 6km to go Krueger hits the front to force the pace with the intention of weakening Cologna and opening the door for teammate Martin Sundby. But his surge takes everyone by surprise and he quickly opens a gap which builds to 22 seconds before the chase from behind starts.

It is then a question of whether can he hang on as the gap starts to come down with every kilometre. He does and the look of disbelief as he crosses the line to take Gold in his first Olympics says it all. Krueger could have taken the mindset of the commentators after that initial crash and saved himself for another day. Instead he chose to focus on the race one piece at a time and when an opportunity arose he was ready to take it. That is a champion mindset at work.

Coaching moments

Many of us find ourselves in a position to coach without it being our profession or indeed without having had much training in how to coach.

Whether you are a manager being expected to coach your direct reports or a parent coaching the soccer team the prospect of coaching can feel a bit overwhelming. What do I say? When do I say it? How will I know if I am doing it right?

A good place to start is by looking for coaching moments. These are opportunities to ask a question which enables the recipient to deepen their understanding of the situation and hence create the possibility for learning and growth. You don't need to be an expert, just observant and willing to ask a powerful question.

Lets look at an example, Feeling stuck. The recipient is stuck, they can’t make progress on the business project/fitness plan. Rather than telling them what to do the coach can ask a powerful question such as: “What is the first step?”

Think about that question for a moment in relation to something that you are stuck with. It enables the recipient to generate perspective and commit to something manageable which frequently unblocks the whole situation.

Making it your own

There is a scene in Cool Runnings where Jamaican driver Derice is studying the top ranked Swiss team to learn what they do that makes them so good.

He latches on to how they start with a chant of ‘Eins, zwei, drei’ and gets the Jamaican team starting with the same mantra. Unfortunately for the Jamaican’s this routine doesn’t really work for them and herein lies the challenge when we observe excellence in action with the intention of improving our own performance.

In Cool Runnings the excellence learning is actually that the Swiss have a consistency of routine before the start and they do it in a way that is meaningful for them. The impact that this routine has is that it primes then both psychologically and physically for a top performance.

Jamaica get creative and come up with their own chant: "Feel the Rhythm! Feel the Rhyme! Get on up, it's bobsled time! Cool Runnings!". Its only a small change in the grand scheme of things but their starting improves (in the movie) and the rest is history.

Whether you are a business looking at how the best do their demand forecasting or if you are a runner watching an Olympian warming up for a race you need to be able to take the time to make sense of what you have observed and work out how make it applicable in your context.

Culture is catching

I was taking an intensive German class last month and half the class consistently turned up late while the other half were on time. We were struggling to establish an ‘on-time’ norm despite the best efforts of many.

One Friday I was out at my coffee break and doing a few things when I realised I was going to have to finish up quickly and get back. In a flash my mind said to me: ‘don’t rush, its ok to be late. Why bust a gut when you know others aren’t?’. So I came back a few minutes late. And I wasn’t the last one back either. I can’t say I was proud of myself but that is the point.

Culture is catching, whether it is good or bad. Going against the grain is hard work and over time it becomes all to easy to give in. Culture needs constant attention from leaders to create and maintain the environment that they want.

100 days to the London Marathon – Help!

For some people 100 days until the London Marthon means time to hit the panic button while for others it still feels light years away.

Whichever camp you are in there are a few simple principles that you can keep in mind to help you arrive at the start line as well prepared as possible.

1.    Start where you are: Your fitness levels right now are what thay are. Accept it. Design your training plan based on what you can do right now, not what you hoped you could do or feel that you ought to be able to do. If your longest run right now is an hour then make the next one an hour and a quarter (not 2 hours because that’s what the plan says).

2.    Increase progressively: give your body time to adapt. It is easy to increase training loads too quickly, especially if you are focused on reaching a certain mileage/long run distance in March. Too often people force it and then get sick or injured and then you miss training time and it makes the situation worse. The consequence of this is that you may not get as much training done as you would like before the tapers starts (No 4.). You need to accept that 80 days gradual progression and a good taper beats forcing it and getting hurt. Trust yourself that on race day the adrenalin and effects of a good taper will see you through.

3.    Recover well: to make sure that your body does absorb the training commit yourself to sleeping more and better while eating good quality food. Until 15th Jan you can access my Recovery course on Teachable for FREE.

4.    Taper like a champion: with three weeks to go ‘the hay is in the barn’ as the American’s like to say. What this means is that by the beginning of April your focus shifts from hard training to being fully recovered for race day. The temptation to squeeze in an extra long run can be overwhelming. Fight it. It takes 20 days for the microscopic muscle damage to repair after a long run. Go long 2 weeks before race day and you will start the race with damaged legs.

So there you have it:

1.    Start where you are

2.    Increase progressively

3.    Recover well

4.    Taper like a champion

Even Elites need to respect these principles although with some modifications if you have years of experience running 100 miles per week.

Thinking Fast and Slow

There are two 'Up' escalators on a recent journey. One is moving and full with people and the other is empty and stationary. As people arrive at the bottom of the escalators they gravitate to the right hand moving escalator, even though that is further away.

These people’s minds have made a shortcut. Empty, stationary escalator = not in use. But what if we slow down and think a bit more critically.

We are in Zürich airport and this is the main route to departures. How likely is it that the escalator is broken? Not very. And if it was, what would we expect to see? Engineers working to repair it or at the very least an ‘out of order’ notice.

A glance to the left and the bottom of the 'Down' escalator shows a little red light to signal don’t get on. Both 'Up' escalators have a little green light.

I step on to the stationary/empty up escalator. Life is breathed into it and it quickly and quietly accelerates. It turns out that the shortcut thinking was wrong.

It’s a classic case of System 1 and System 2 thinking as set out by Daniel Kahneman in his seminal work ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

I tell this story because I’ve just finished reading Michael Lewis’ excellent book ‘The Undoing Project’ about Kahneman’s collaboration with Amos Tversky and System 1 and 2 is at the front of my mind right now (if I hadn’t read it recently I would have fallen into the same trap as everybody else!). It’s a cracking good read and I can recommend both books to kick start the year.

Starting a fitness routine - adaptation is a marathon not a sprint

This week I’ve seen lots of people braving the weather to put on sports kit and run. No doubt many are driven by a New Year’s desire to get fit/raise money for charity/experience nature.

Sadly, in 4-8 weeks' history tells us that many of them will be hurt or sick, they will take a break from running (or whatever their chosen activity was) and possibly not get going again for a long time, or until next January.

What we need to remember is that training is a process of breaking down the body at a micro level and then allowing it rebuild itself stronger. Each run tears muscle fibres, depletes glycogen and smashes blood cells.

Unfortunately the re-building part can’t be rushed and our enthusiasm often leads us to do too much of the ‘breaking down’ before we have rebuilt and adapted.

The mantra is to do less than you think you can/should but to do it consistently for 3-4 weeks. When it is feeling easy then you know that you are adapting and you can increase the load. This is as true for a novice runner as for an elite marathon runner.

If you live in the Zürich I will be leading some beginners running courses this spring that will guide you around the overtraining pitfalls. The first course starts in Rapperswil-Jona on 3rd February and places are limited.