Using your learning edge
Part 5 – Learning regardless of the result
Jeff Mitchell – Community Sport Advisor – Sport Auckland
Competition is exciting, and everyone wants to win. Win or lose, every match presents you with opportunities to learn and grow. In this article we will look at how you can learn regardless of the result. We will examine what you can learn from competition and a process for learning, win or lose.
Importance of learning regardless of the result
An important theme of these articles is the idea of continuous learning. This requires you to take every opportunity you have to improve – every training session and every match. It is also important that you do not keep repeating the same mistakes. Examining what has occurred and taking steps to improve your future performance will increase your coaching ability. This will allow you to move the area from your learning zone to your competency zone as you reduce the number of mistakes that you make.
To continuously learn you need to look past the result and focus on what you can take from the experience. Many coaches find this difficult as they get caught up in the emotions of competition and are more concerned with success right now. Focussing too much on the result means that they often miss opportunities to examine how they could further improve. In this mindset, achieving a win is the only concern and a loss is seen as a failure. Failure is something to be avoided as it is a threat to their self-esteem. In either situation, the coach is unable to take the opportunity to learn from the experience and is instead focussing solely on the result.
What can you learn from a competition?
You have the opportunity to learn every time that your team or athletes compete. You can learn about your athletes, your opponents, your sport, about coaching and especially about yourself. When you are winning you can learn about your strengths and how you respond to success. When you are losing you can learn about your composure and how you respond to failure. There are also things you can learn regardless of the result, such as how well you analyse performance and where you direct your attention.
The following table provides an overview of some of the areas you can learn about. It is important to note that in a lot of cases the areas are not mutually exclusive. For instance, you could learn about your players’ strengths when they are losing, or how they respond to set backs when they are winning. Use the table as a starting point for topics that you could reflect on. Use these topics to help you to focus on areas that will allow you to take the most learning from a competition.
You should be aware of when you are more likely to learn certain aspects, based on the result, so that you can take the opportunity these present. So, for example, you might pay close attention to the consistency of your players’ effort when they are winning, as they are more likely to ease up if they are becoming complacent. Look at your players’ attitude when they are losing: do they dig in and try to find a way out, or do they hang their heads and wait for the match to be over? Examine yourself too: what is your composure like when your team is losing? How focussed do you remain on the process when you are winning? Be aware of the opportunities for learning that are present and direct your focus (and your reflection) towards the relevant areas of learning.
Response to the result
To learn from a competition you need to be open to receiving constructive feedback and open to critiquing your own performance. Your openness to learning will depend on how you respond to the result. Placing too much importance on the result – and basing your reaction on how your team performs – will prevent you from fully learning from your experience. This means that to develop your knowledge following a competition you should focus on what can be learnt and what you set out to achieve, rather than the joy of winning or the pain of losing.
In our previous article we discussed the importance of mindset when learning from mistakes. It is very difficult to respond effectively if your ego is tied to the result of the competition. To overcome this you need to recognise that losing is not necessarily an indication of your coaching ability, however, your response to losing can be. To be an effective learner you need to be able to remove your ego – a sign that you have a high level of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence allows you to understand yourself and how you interact with others. Part of this awareness is how you respond to failure. It is important that you are able to accept constructive criticism and look at how you can improve on your weaknesses. A good understanding of yourself and your responses allows you to react to the result of competition in an effective way, increasing your learning.
An important element of emotional intelligence is self-management, which is the ability to stay in control of your emotions. Self-management is critical for remaining calm and being able to identify the learning that is available during and after a competition. If you have a high level of emotional intelligence, you will be able to look beyond the result and see what you can take from the match.
Coaches with low emotional intelligence will be self-centred and lack self-awareness. This will cause them to focus too much on their own needs rather than being conscious of those around them. When your ego is tied to the result of a competition, you will become caught up in your own emotions. To be able to learn from competition you need to develop the emotional intelligence to separate your emotions from the result. Are you composed and thoughtful, or do you get caught up in the emotion of competition?
Developing your emotional intelligence is an effective strategy for improving your ability to learn from competition. If you are able to separate your emotions from the result of competition, you are able to learn more from your team’s performance. We will now look at how you can build some processes around learning when your team is losing and when it is winning.
Process when losing
No one likes to lose. Sometimes coaches get defensive when their teams lose, or they may look to lay blame. Sometimes they just want to forget about the game as soon as possible. This is a mistake, however, as a loss can teach you a lot about your team and your sport. It can teach you what went wrong, allowing you to identify what to do to prevent it happening again in the future. It can highlight weaknesses in your team and areas of your coaching that you need to improve. To harness this you need to evaluate your team’s mistakes and why they occurred, and to examine your own role in the failure. The best way to do this is through a process for examining your losses.
The first step when reviewing a game you have lost is to examine your objectives. What did you set out to achieve? What did you actually achieve? It is important to note that you may still be achieving your objectives even when you are losing games. You also want to examine the strategies that you used to achieve your objectives. Were they appropriate and were they implemented correctly?
Working through the above questions will help you to understand what has occurred and to focus your attention on your objectives rather than the result. You then want to ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. What helped or prevented you from achieving your objectives? Based on the success of your strategies, what can you learn about the principles of coaching and of your sport? What have you learnt about your athletes and yourself?
The final step is to identify what you will now do differently based on what you have learnt. This could include what you will do to learn more about an area that you have become aware of. It may be some steps that you will take when you are in a similar situation in the future. Alternatively, you might identify some actions you need to take to improve in the area. For each of these scenarios it would be a good idea to update your learning plan with some specific actions that will help you to build on what you have learnt.
Process when winning
When your team is winning it can be harder to identify what you can learn. With a loss there are often obvious mistakes that led to the result or weaknesses that are exposed. With a win there may not be any obvious areas of weakness, meaning that you need to look harder for what you can take from the game. A positive result will often mask areas of your team’s play where they are underperforming, making it risky to assume that ‘all’s well that ends well’.
It is important to still look for what you can learn following a win, rather than just basking in the fact that you won. To learn while your team is winning you will follow a similar process to when they are losing, though you may need to look a bit harder and deeper into their performance. Start by reviewing your objectives and what you actually achieved. Here you need to be aware that even though you are winning competitions you may not actually be achieving the performance and process goals that you have set. Again, review your strategies – did they actually contribute to your win, or did you win despite of them?
The process then differs from losing as you will look at what you are doing well and why. What led to this? It is important to consider the role of your opposition when doing this analysis – how much of the success is down to the performance of your team, and how much is a result of a weak opponent? Try to understand your success – what worked well? What strategies did you implement that worked, and why did they work? You are looking to increase your understanding of effective coaching and to identify successful strategies and actions that you can repeat in the future.
You then need to look beyond the result to what you are not doing well. What are your weaknesses that may be covered by your results? Alternatively, what can you learn based on your opponent’s mistakes or weaknesses? Is there anything that you can take into your own planning? As when you are losing, you should identify what you can learn from the game and what you will do with what you have learnt.
The process of identifying and planning your learning should give you a number of areas to explore or a variety of information that can be added to your coaching knowledge. To really improve your understanding of coaching you need to delve more deeply into what you have learnt. A good way to do this is through reflecting on your coaching and your learning.
You could (and should) reflect on the knowledge that you have gained and how you will use it. This reflection should be used to inform your learning plan. The greatest benefit from reflection is that it can help develop your self-awareness. This is achieved by reflecting on your practice during and after the game and exploring what it says about you. This process will raise your awareness, increasing your emotional intelligence. As we have seen, high emotional intelligence will make you more capable of learning from your competitions, leading towards continuous improvement.
Reflection is performed by asking yourself questions and then exploring your answers to them, to determine what insights they provide. The questions that you could ask yourself when you are winning will likely be quite different to those when you are losing. The important thing is to make sure you reflect regardless of the result. Some possible questions you could reflect on after losing a game could include:
- How am I responding to our losses? Internally? Externally?
- Where do I look to place the blame for our losses?
- What steps do I take to learn why we are losing?
- Is there anything that is preventing me from making the most of the learning that is available when we are losing?
Following a game that you have won you could reflect on some of the following questions:
- How am I responding to our wins? Internally? Externally?
- How are my athletes responding to our success?
- What steps do I take to learn from when we win?
- How focused do I remain on our team objectives and the objectives in my learning plan?
- Am I looking deeply enough into our performance, or just focusing on the result?
- Am I becoming complacent in any area?
All of these questions can provide a good starting point for raising your awareness of how you deal with winning and losing. The key for you then is to make sure that you continue to identify what you can learn from each game – regardless of the result – and then apply what you have learnt.
Every match provides you with the opportunity to develop your understanding of your players, yourself and of coaching. To take this opportunity you need to be able to detach yourself from the emotions of winning and losing, and reflect on what has occurred. In our next issue we will examine how to observe and analyse a match and your own coaching performance in order to increase your learning.