Embracing failure

Early in the second half in Saturday’s rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand, Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale receives the ball in his own half. These are the world’s top 2 teams, the scores are tight and the match could go either way. In front of Stockdale is the 2m tall Kieran Reid and beyond that open space, however behind him is also space which leaves him vulnerable if he makes a mistake. Stockdale tries a risky kick over Reid but he leaps high and knocks the ball down and beyond Stockdale. The crowd hold their breath, Reid is one of the world’s best. A double World Cup winner and captain of the All Blacks. All he has to do is gather the ball and run to the line to score potentially match winning points. Un-characteristically he fumbles it and a sigh of relief echoes around the ground.

Fast forward 5 minutes. Stockdale is this time in the New Zealand half. The scores are still tight when he receives the ball with the even taller Brodie Retallick in front of him. The scenario looks familiar. Space in front of Stockdale if he can get the ball past Retallick and space behind which leaves him vulnerable if he makes a mistake. What does he do? He tries the chip again … this time it is a bit higher, he sprints round the New Zealand defence, gathers the ball and runs to the goal line to score the match winning try.

Now think about some organisations that you know. What would the response to that first error have been? Indeed, would that sort of move even have been ‘allowed’ in the first place?

A frequent theme when I’m coaching teams in business is the need to be more innovative in pursuit of better results. That typically leads us into a discussion about the behaviours that get rewarded and the organisation’s reaction to perceived ‘failure’. The answers are usually revealing and new leadership choices start to appear.

The Irish team have created a culture where it is fine to have a go and ‘fail’ and then have a go again. That is how innovation leading to better results happens. Saturday was the first time in 113 years that Ireland have beaten New Zealand in Ireland.

What makes the Ryder Cup so special?

Every 2 years I fail to get excited for the Ryder Cup. Until it begins that is. Then it becomes utterly enthralling for 3 days of dramatic ebb and flow.

In the last 25 years, since the players have been evenly matched, USA have tended to have the upper hand in the Sunday singles (one v one matches) while the European team has had the upper hand in the the fourball and foursomes (a pair from each team playing either with one ball per player or one ball per pair) on Friday and Saturday.

As an outsider it appears as if the American’s are typically playing for the flag and themselves. They get pumped, the chants of USA go up, and the one on one duel of the singles appeals to their individualistic approach. On the other hand the European team don’t really have a Flag/Nation to play for. Instead they have a strong sense of shared purpose, they know what they need to do to succeed and they play for each other - which is critical in the pairs matches, especially the foursomes. You can see the longevity and success of some of the pairs from Olazabal/Garcia and Faldo/Montgomery to Rose/Stenson. Add in the points from pretty much any pair that Ian Poulter plays in - a classic example of a good but not great individual making the team better than the sum of its parts - and you can see the foundation of European success.

With 12 points on offer in the singles and 16 across the various pairs matches is it a surprise that Europe have dominated in recent years?

Team trumps individualism, that’s my rather simple hypothesis anyway. Would love to hear other people’s explanation and even an insider perspective or two!

Service - it's how you 'save' the screw up that really counts

We all make mistakes, drop the ball, screw things up. How we respond to rectify the situation is what sticks in the customers mind.

A few weeks ago I was trying to renew my Headspace subscription. The link to the special offer didn’t work properly. The service chat connected me with Joe who walked me through some techy stuff to do with clearing my cache. Still no luck. Some other bits of fiddling around. No luck. A different route to renew using a code got further but the payment part was falling over…

Just at the point where I’m getting frustrated and ready to walk away an email from Joe. ‘Sorry this still isnt’ working, we are having some issues that we are trying to fix. We appreciate the hassle you are having and I have just added a year’s subscription for you. Enjoy’.

Now that is a ‘save’ – fantastic customer service. My lasting memory will be what Joe did, not the original problems I had.

The bigger question is what does it take to create such a service culture in an organisation?

Sleep deprivation and its effect on performance

Two eye opening pieces of research from Matthew Walker’s outstanding book ‘Why we sleep’.

·      Partially depriving people of sleep for 6 straight nights resulted in the same level of impairment as somebody kept awake all night.

·      Keeping people awake for 19 straight hours (i.e. from 7am until 2am) resulted in impairment levels the same as for people who were over the legal drink drive level.

If you are like me then you have experienced both those sleep deprivation scenarios.

Even more alarming is that when we are even partially sleep deprived we are terrible at estimating the negative impact it has on our performance - much like the drunk driver confident that they can walk straight down the line!

The message is that even small amounts of sleep deprivation starts to add up to have a serious impact on our ability to perform even basic tasks.

Warm ups for work?

Athletes warm up for competition by practising in short, intense bursts the skills that they are going to need, so why not warm up for the most challenging activities at work?

Going into a project brainstorming session – warm up your creative process first with a random object/word association game.

Decision making meeting – perform some fast complex decision-making tasks.

Coaching a colleague – clear your ‘stuff’ first, tune in to the environment around you, sharpen your listening skills.

The trick is to take you away from what you were doing before and get your brain re-familiarised with the skill you going to ask it to perform.

Which bus are you on?

When considering great organisations approach to hiring, Jim Collins talks about getting the right people on the bus and then figuring out which seats to sit them in.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine was hired for a ‘bus’ and spent some time with his new boss trying to figure out which seat was the best one for him and the team. But it turned out that actually he had got on the wrong bus. There was nothing wrong with it; a well-maintained bus, the right people on it, going somewhere cool. But it wasn’t going where he wanted to go.

What I admire was the conversation that quickly followed leading to my acquaintance hopping off the bus and finding one going to where he really wanted to go.

When does a successful method become a liability?

Being highly proficient at the Western roll was a sure-fire way to high jump success – until Dick Fosbury came along and changed the game.

Being a travel agent able to access and compare hotels and flights from different companies and making a commission as a result was the way to sell holidays until the internet enabled Expedia, Airbnb and co. to come along.

For the last 3 Olympic cycles Team GB has had unprecedented success. 4thplace in the Beijing medal table, a record 65 medals in London and then being the only host nation to ever go better in the following games by landing 67 medals in Rio. The Paralympic programme has been similarly successful and in the Winter Games the medal factory continues in Skeleton bob (despite have no track and no snow in the UK…).

It is built on a foundation of no compromise and a significant amount of targeted funding from UK Sport designed to win medals. 

How long can the method continue to be successful for? When does it become a liability?

The programme is in place for Tokyo 2020 but after that? Will the performances be sustained and even exceed Rio?

At what point do you re-invent yourself and do something different? Do you wait for the results to drop off and then change? Or do you take the plunge and change while you are at the top of your game? That is the question being wrestled with by UK Sport.

The brave option would be to re-invent yourself now from a position of strength. Oh, to be a fly on the wall!

Coaching the whole system to deliver success

A few years back at the end of a session coaching young athletes the long jump I was approached by a parent looking less than impressed. Uh oh I thought, what’s happened here. The parent proceeded to point out that I had it all wrong. Long jump means running down the runway and jumping into a pit of sand before getting the distance measured. Having the whole group of the kids taking two steps and jumping into the pit from the side wasn’t what he was paying for.

Never mind that these were under 11 kids with a wide range of skills. Never mind that by jumping one at a time down the runway they might get 3 or 4 attempts (and didn’t have the skill to control their take off at speed) whereas jumping in from the side together they could get 20 jumps, spot their take point and practice using left and right legs to improve their skills (ask Jess Ennis about the value of being able to use either foot for take off) .

Why would the parent in question know why I was doing what I was doing if I hadn’t explained it to them? After all, their perception was entirely correct given their experience of doing long jump at school and watching it in competition. This was a bit of a wake up call for me to think more systemically about the impact of my coaching and who needed to be included in the process.

Some of the biggest stakeholders in an athlete’s development are the parents, and for older athletes, their partner. Helping them understand why you are doing what you are doing as a coach and how the parent/partner can best support the athlete’s development is time well spent. 

We are coaching more than just the athlete, we are coaching an entire system to deliver success.

Warmed up or over-cooked?

Observing some international athletes at a training camp recently I was struck by the variation in warm ups. Some of the athletes appeared highly focused and all of their warm up activities were performed intensely and with skill – they were clearly preparing to perform. On the other hand, some of the others appeared to be going through the motions – the warm ups were lengthy and looked quite impressive but on closer examination lacked intensity and specificity.

Which took me back to my racing days and some of my best and worst races. There was no shortage of races at university where as a result of poor planning/shoddy navigation we arrived just in time for the start having got changed in the minibus. Doing a 10-minute minute warm up and pinning on our numbers as we legged it to the start line hardly seemed ideal but invariably I ran well.

On the other hand, national championships where we had to register hours in advance and report to the call room 30 minutes before our start provided ample opportunity for a long and comprehensive warm up. But that was a blessing in disguise as the temptation was always to do too much. On reflection there were times when I was definitely over-cooked.

By the time I was racing marathons I had finally got the hang of a short, focused warm up despite having plenty of time available before racing. In fact for my first marathon I had a sheet with my pre-race routine typed out with every activity from the moment I woke up to the time the gun went. It ensured that I did what was required and nothing more – it worked like a dream.

All of which should serve as a reminder. The purpose of a warm up is to prepare the body for competition while minimising the expenditure of physical and mental energy. Time to rethink your warm up?

Routine – the key to performing under pressure for Harry Kane

In his pre-match interview yesterday, England striker Harry Kane was talking about the pressure of taking penalties in the World Cup with the eyes of the world on him. Looking relaxed he said: “I have a routine, it’s the same in practice as in a match. I do the same preparation, the same breathing, the same …”. It’s no wonder he was relaxed and confident.

You get the picture. To perform under pressure the skills required need to be deeply ingrained in the sub-conscious. That means practicing and practicing deeply.

The principles apply whether you are an elite sportsman, an actor, a lawyer in court or a businessman taking decisions and running meetings.

How well prepared are you to perform when it really matters?

The value of proper downtime

Top performers consistently make space for proper downtime to re-charge their batteries and prevent burnout. Whether its athletes taking an end of season break, writers taking time off between books or academics taking a sabbatical.

When these longer ‘macro recoveries’ are combined with good ‘micro recovery’ habits such as sleep, exercise and nutrition then high-performance levels can be produced consistently when required.

Unfortunately the temptation for many performers and especially their bosses is to keep going to the well – ask the player to play one more match, the employee to take on one more project or the writer to crank out the next book. It may produce short term results but at what long term cost.

It is time for organisations to get strategic with downtime and focus on both the micro and macro recovery required for top performance.

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?


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 achieve 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 hang of the moves he encouraged me to 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

Self belief.png

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!