Failures, Errors, Mistakes and the Quest for Perfect Play

Inspired and developed through discussions with Jesse Clark

We (players and coaches) all make bad plays. We never play or coach perfectly.  Yet, we are all driven to do so.  The question I want to take up here is this:  are all bad plays created equally?  Specifically, do bad plays come in different types?  If so, what are the types?  What are their origins and causes?  What are their consequences?  Do different types call for different cures?  And finally, are some types necessary to move us toward our goal of perfect play?  That is, should we strive to eliminate some types of bad plays but encourage others?

Note:  The kind of differences I’m after are not based on strategic consequences.  For example, hitting a volleyball out of bounds is a bad play, and it is worse than hitting to the best defender.  Both are bad plays, but one leads to losing quicker.  The differences I’m looking for are not about difference in degree, but rather difference in kind.

Let’s start by observing that we have a lot of different words for bad plays:  errors, failures, and mistakes are three common ones.  Different words suggest different meanings.  Here’s a brief look at the etymology or origin of these words:

Error – Error is, obviously, strongly related to the verb “to err” which means originally “to wander or stray.”  In particular, “to err” is to wander or stray from a standard, guide, central purpose, intent.  We can see this connection in the word erratic.   Erratic behavior lacks a consistent focus or plan.  One is “off the map.” Errors, then, are the result of actions that lack a guide, a standard, a purpose, or a map.  In short, errors are mindless actions.

Failure -  Roots connected to this term have to do with “being deficient or lacking.”  One “fails to reach the summit,” or “fails to make a play,” or “she hits for .350 without fail.”  Unlike an error, which is the result of a mindless action that lacks a guide or standard, a failure is one who knows the standard but doesn’t reach it.  The underlying sense evokes not mindless action but rather insufficient action, or a lack of action.

Mistake - “Mis” means “wrongly” and “take” means a lot of things:  to grasp, to lay hold of, to select, to choose.  Mistakes are “wrong actions.”  Mistake suggests an action that has a plan, a guide, a purpose, but doesn’t accomplish it, instead leading to unintended consequences.  Both failures and mistakes are deficient or lacking in some sense, but mistakes have a performative dimension that failures don’t.  For example, the two statements “I failed to cover my opponent” and “I mistakenly covered my opponent” suggest a lack of action in the first, and a wrong choice of defense in the second.  In the first, I failed to act; in the second, I selected my actions poorly.

Let’s sum this up as follows:

Bad plays are of (at least) these three kinds: 

(1)  Errors are mindless actions.   I dribble the ball around the court without a plan in mind and the shot clock runs out.

(2)  Failures don’t meet a goal because of inaction.  I hesitate to dive for a ball on defense and we lose the point.

(3)  Mistakes are mindful actions that miss the goal.   I serve a player deep thinking it will push her out of attacking position.  It doesn’t.

Having convinced ourselves that there are at least three types of bad plays, how do we determine a particular play is an error, a failure, or a mistake?  Often we just know from our experience of working with a particular player.  In cases where we truly don’t know, simply asking the player her state of mind or to analyze the previous play is a good strategy.

Now, the two upshots of our discussion: (1) how do we eliminate bad plays, and (2) do we want to eliminate all bad plays?

Eliminating errors seems to be about regaining a mindful focus on the purpose, guide, standard, goal and/or map of our actions.   And this seems to be about (1)  practicing mental toughness and discipline, and (2) about understanding the connection between particular actions and the goal.  The former is about practicing awareness, focus, and mindfulness – the discipline and awareness to stay on course.  The latter is about learning the connections between actions and consequences – that is, to understand the course of the game and how each action keeps one on (or off) course.

Eliminating failures seems to be about eliminating the causes of hesitation and inaction, and fostering courage, confidence, diligence, hard work and perseverance. Sometimes hesitation and inaction is the result of not caring and sometimes the result of not knowing how to perform, and still other times it’s the result of not recognizing the situation as calling for a particular action.  Caring is obviously up to the player, but recognizing situations and understanding what actions they call for (and how to perform them) demand a coach who is a teacher.  (Failure could also result from just not being good enough yet, in which case, there’s no cure but more and more mindful practice.  Moreover, this type of failure is often motivating. As my discussion of failure above indicates, this is not what I have in mind when I use the term.)

Eliminating mistakes is a different animal.  Again, a mistake is about misunderstanding the connection between an action and a consequence.  A player does X in order to produce Y, but X doesn’t produce Y.  I serve short to prevent a certain attack, but that attack comes anyway.  The question then is:  why does this player not understand the connection between X and Y?  There could be a lot of reasons:  the player hasn’t yet learned the connection because it was never taught; or because she never bothered to learn; or because she didn’t memorize the scouting report.  Mistakes in these instances could be rectified by more mindful practice, better teaching, or more time spent on the scouting report.  In short, these types of mistakes are ultimately reducible to variants of errors and failures.

There is another cause, however, for a certain kind of mistakes.  These mistakes come from experimentation.  I don’t know how exactly I should defend a certain hitter, so I methodically try different things until I hit upon the right course of action.  These kinds of mistakes are necessary in order to achieve our ideal goal of perfect play just as trying out hypotheses and doing experiments are necessary for any science to progress toward perfect knowledge. There simply is no way around the fact that learning (absent explicit teaching) requires hypotheses, experiments, and verification or rejection. Fostering these kinds of mistakes as part of a methodical process of learning how to beat an opponent is very important.  It is the most obvious example of a “bad play” that should not only not be eliminated, but actively encouraged.

So, to sum up:  we often hear clichés to the effect that bad plays and success go hand in hand.  We can see what this means in more detail now.  Some types of bad plays may lead to success, not all:  Methodical mistakes in the effort to learn are required to become an elite player or team.  Failures in the form of “we are just not that good enough yet” may result in continued motivation.  All else, however, can and should be eliminated: mindless errors of all stripes and failures as the result of inaction.

Encouraging players to make mindful, methodical, mistakes in the effort to learn must be a part of our coaching plan.  How to create this type of culture in our gym is a topic for a future blog.


Methods for Developing Good Questions

My colleague Keegan Cook’s blog on creating a culture of questions inspired today’s topic:  what questions should we ask? Or, more generally, is there a way (or ways) of thinking that will generate consistently productive questions?  I think the answer to the general question is yes.  Here’s a sketch of one distinct method of generating productive questions (and answers.)  I’ll conclude by contrasting it with another, perhaps more familiar method.

I call this question-generator “reasoning backward from the goal” and it seems to berelated to kinds of thinking called backward chaining, backward induction, and retrograde analysis. It works like this: start with a goal and question backward to the causes, events, and actions that will (or most likely will) lead to the goal.  Once identified, question backward again to the causes, events, and actions leading to them, and so on.  Here’s an example from volleyball (abbreviated and condensed for the sake of simplicity):

Goal:  Score a point when receiving serve. 

Question 1:  How can we score a point when receiving? 

(Some) Possible Actions:

(1a) Opposing team misses serve.

(1b) We send ball over and it hits the opposing team’s floor.

(1c) We send ball over and it doesn’t make it back over the net.

(1d) Opposing team makes an error on defense or transition offense.

Let’s eliminate (1a) and (1d) because we have little or no control over them.   Onto the  next question.

Question 2:  How can we send the ball over so that it either (1b) or (1c) happens?

(Some) Possible Actions:

(2a) Hit into the court.

(2b) Tip into the court

(2c) Roll shot into the court.

(2d) Setter dump into the court.

(2e) Free ball over into the court.

Now, we need to evaluate the alternatives.   The question is now:

Which action is most likely to lead to the desired result?  This is a statistical question, answered (in part) by measuring all times these actions lead or don’t lead to a point.  For the sake of this example, let’s assume we’ve done our homework and the results show that hitting into the court most often leads to either (1b) or (1c).

Now, we are ready for a whole host of new questions:

Question 3:  What are types of plays (kinds of hits) available to our team?

(For the sake of simplifying this example, I’ll just mention two general kinds.)

(3a) Quick Attacks

(3b) High Ball Attacks

Again, we need to evaluate the alternatives by doing a statistical study of which play types lead more often to (1b) or (1c).  Let’s assume the study points to (3a).

I’ll break the example off at this point, but you can see how “reasoning back from the goal” works in general.  Here’s a brief description of the method:

(1) Start with the goal, let’s call it G.

(2)  Ask a question that generates all the possible actions or events that lead immediately to G.

(3) Evaluate which of those possible actions or events have the best likelihood of actually leading to G. (And exclude those actions you have little control over, like opponent error.)

(4)  Repeat (2), making the results of (3) a new goal, G2.

(5) Repeat (3), and so on…

Continue until you’ve reached a series of actions that lead from the initial action to the final goal.  You’ll end up with a pathway that will most likely lead to a point for your team.

Now, I’ve greatly simplified this course of thinking in my example above (I didn’t include attack directions, or different players attacking, or quality of pass, etc.) and left out the opponent’s defensive actions (certain attacks work better vs certain defenses.)  But, the general point holds:  working backward from a goal and evaluating each possible action is a good strategy to generate productive questions and answers.

Here’s another (simplified) example of a “reasoning backward from the goal” that you could lead your players through. This example also adds a new layer of questioning – identifying situational factors conditioning the execution of the goal.  “Asking about the situation” should come first after listing the goal.

Goal:  An outside hitter killing a Go set. 

Preliminary Situational Questions:

S. Question 1:  What is the blocking situation?  A.  They run a tight bunch-read and are slow to the pins.

S. Question 2:  What is the back-row defensive situation?  A. They run a rotational defense.

S. Question 3:  Is the opposing setter front row or back? A.  Back.

S. Question 4:  Is the set good?  A. Yes

Ok, we’ve roughly defined the situation in which the attack is going to take place.  Now, your player can reason backwards from the goal of getting a kill off a Go set.

Question 5:  What are your hitting options (direction of attack?)

(5a)   Line

(5b)  Angle

Which is more likely to get you a kill?  Let’s say line is more likely because the bunch-read has a difficult time getting near the pin and the middle back defender rotates late.

Now, reset the goal as “attacking down the line,” and proceed to reason backward from that goal.  How can I set up a good attack down the line?

This example suggests a general rule of this type of method:  the more situational factors you can identify, the more the possible actions that lead to the desired goal are circumscribed and limited.  In other words, the more detail you can identify in a situation, the more the “right answer” just jumps out at you.  If you don’t know, for example, that the team is in a bunch-read and is slow to the pins, then it is harder to see that a swing down the line is a good decision.

In general, “reasoning backward from the goal” may seem like a common sense approach.  It is, and it is used often, though perhaps not as methodically it could be or as deeply as possible.  A major stumbling block against using this method is (obviously) a team culture that doesn’t ask questions.  See Keegan’s post for reasons why you should cultivate a culture that does question.  Another difficulty is a culture weighted down by habit and tradition.  Still another is a fear of unorthodox or radical conclusions that may be suggested by such questioning.

By way of contrast, I’ll mention another method for developing questions.  Consider these questions:  Is my hitter hitting the same way as other hitters I’ve seen?  Is my passer passing like other passers I’ve seen?  The root of this kind of questioning is a desire to mimic, to copy, and this desire is well-founded:  if you do what excellent players or teams do, chances are you’ll have the same success they do.  Deepening this type of questioning is all about identifying more and more fine-grained detail, eg., is my hitter’s elbow as high as that great hitter?

I don’t think we need any special argument to convince us that this method is distinct from “reasoning backward from the goal.”   Two reasons in support of this kind of questioning (let’s name it “copy-cat questioning”) are this:  it is not too difficult and it is relatively quick.  A reason against it:  it doesn’t generate new, creative solutions that could be much more effective than those being copied.  Goal-centered backward reasoning is, on the other hand, often difficult and time-consuming, but it is more likely to generate interesting questions that produce creative and perhaps very highly productive solutions.

In the end, we’ll use both the “reasoning backward from the goal” method (and add “situational questions”) and the “copy-cat questioning” method.  Both generate productive questions and fruitful answers and directions.

Diagnosing Team Culture Problems and “Love-Acts” (Wooden, Royce, and the Foundations of Team Culture V)

Identifying a problem, giving it a name, and setting it within a network of familiar relations is a large part of the work required to solve that problem.   In the language of medicine, an accurate diagnosis may be the most important part of any treatment of illness.  A large part of the value of any model of team culture is its ability to diagnose problems of team culture.  Let’s see how this works in the case of the model I’m developing.

First, a quick review of the model:  Loyalty is the willing, practical, and thoroughgoing commitment of a person to a cause.  A cause is, primarily, an ideal that others may also serve.  The object of loyalty is not a person, doctrine, or system.  Sports teams will likely make the ideal of a perfectly functioning, successful team their cause; spouses may make their marriage their cause; friends may make their friendship their cause.  Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers may make family their cause. The team, marriage, friendship, and family is not a thing, but an ideal to realize in the course of concrete actions.

While we serve the cause, the cause provides us with meaning, purpose, direction, and fulfillment.   Our cause bestows significant value upon our work, activity and lives.  We are loyal to our cause through work, commitment, dedication, and our cause essentially “gives us a life.”

Our relationship to each other is, therefore, mediated by the cause the unites us, and, in fact, serves as the basis for our love for one another.  I suggested in the last post that while each of us on our team is loyal to our cause, we love each other by performing acts that help our teammates realize our cause.  After all, what better expression of love could there be than to act so that someone may realize that which gives her life meaning, fulfillment, and purpose? A quick example:  a teammate stays late after practice to serve to a passer.  Each serve is an act of love, for it helps the passer improve, which in turn brings the cause of a successful, vital, and thriving team closer to reality and provides meaning and fulfillment to the passer.

Teams that are loyal to the same cause, that perform acts of love for each other, quickly build up a kind a very deep kind of trust:  trust that each indeed share the same cause, that each are “on the same boat rowing in the same direction.”

And so there are four fundamental types of relationships on any team:  teammates’ loyalty to the cause, the cause’s bestowal of meaning and purpose on the lives of players, love between teammates, and trust between teammates.  Problems may emerge anywhere along these lines and effects are not localized, but will disturb the entire team structure.

I’ll focus briefly on one problem:  Often players do not perform acts of love for one another.  Immediately, we can see the cascading series of effects:  each now serves the cause separately, not cooperatively, and so the cause is only partially fulfilled, and so does not bestow as much meaning as it could.  In short, the team is not as successful as it could be, and so those moments in which the team does succeed (by playing great, or winning a match, etc.) are fewer and infrequent.  Trust also may erode when acts of love are absent, for the creeping thoughts of “I’m not so sure we share the same cause, not sure we are on the same page” may crop up.

The above example of serving to a teammate is just one kind of “love-act.”  A lot of teams lack this, but certainly not all.  Another kind of love-act is holding a teammate accountable.  This may seem counter-intuitive, since criticism is often not taken as a love-act by those who receive it. But, since love (on this model) is always connected to and mediated by a cause that teammates share, acts of love are not oriented toward the teammate in isolation, but rather the teammate in her relation to her cause.  In short, holding someone accountable is essentially saying this: “You have an ideal cause that is the meaning of your life, but for whatever reason, you’re not properly loyal to it, and so you’re going to miss out on that which is most important:  a life filled with meaning, purpose, direction, and the fellowship of all us that share your cause.”    On my view,  failure to hold each other accountable is a failure to love one another.

Another issue that affects love between teammates:  lack of competition.  Competing as hard as you can in practice is a significant act of love.  How?  By competing at the edge of your ability, you force your teammates on the other side of the net to figure our ways to beat you, therefore forcing them to grow and develop.  By not competing as hard as you can, you do not bring out the best in your teammates. In the first case, you are doing something concrete that will help your teammate realize their cause.  In the second, you simply are not.

One final example of a failure to love one another – this one is specific to the volleyball court:  poor first contacts, especially on free balls, easy serves, or down-balls.  It is an act of love to pass that ball perfectly because it allows other hitters an opportunity to attack in a high percentage situation and experience success.  It is a gift to your teammate, just as a perfect lob to a streaking basketball player is a gift instead of stopping and shooting a long two.

Serving to your teammates (or more generally spending time to help their skill development), holding your teammates accountable, competing as hard as possible in practice, and doing “little things” on the court for one another are four examples of love-acts.  There are certainly other kinds.  If teammates don’t perform these actions and/or others of the same kind, you’ve likely got a team culture problem along the axis of “love for one another.”  This problem will affect the other fundamental relationships of your team as well:  loyalty, meaning, and trust.

One simple yet powerful solution to problems in this part of the foundation of your team’s culture is to have a brief meeting about what “love for one another” means – that it doesn’t mean you have certain feelings for one another, but that it means you have to do things for one another, things that help others achieve their cause.  Then, ask your team to come up with a list of love-acts and consistently remind them about performing these actions, perhaps even asking your players to record them in a weekly journal.  I’d love to hear other suggestions about how to build a team that consistently performs acts of love for one another.

The Principle of Minimal Sufficiency

Coaches are primarily in the business of behavior modification.  Typically, however, we have a clearer idea of what the behavior is that we want than the methods to use to actually effect the change.  This is a large topic, and we can’t do it justice here.  Instead, I want to draw attention to a theory I encountered in Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Timothy D. Wilson.

Wilson’s underlying thesis is that the “stories” or “narratives” we tell ourselves about ourselves have a significant impact on our actions.  For example, if I think of myself as a being capable of change through hard work, then if I lose a match I will likely conclude that I need to identify weaknesses and work hard to improve.  If, on the other hand, I think of myself as a being with fixed talents and abilities, I will likely conclude from a loss that I’m just not good enough.  Perhaps, after a few losses I decide that I’m “not suited” for this sport and decide to quit.  In each case, the story that we have of ourselves influences what we do and how we respond to various situations.

If this theory is true, then it follows that behavior modification has something to do with changing one’s story.  If we can get our players to think differently about themselves, then it follows that many changes we seek may occur on their own.  Helping a player understand that “toughness” is not a characteristic one simply has or doesn’t have, but rather a collection of habits that can be developed through activity may reap significant rewards. Effort at actions falling under the general category of “toughness” may increase.

The question is then, how do we do change self-narratives? Wilson identifies a few different “story-editing” techniques.  Some have to do with simply leading a player through a series of guided discussions that result in a narrative change.  This is likely a good idea when the issue concerns general behaviors like those from the example above.  More specific behaviors, like getting a player to change a particular action (like not transitioning hard from offense to defense on the volleyball court) seem to call for some different techniques.

I’ll focus on one: negative consequences (such as running, doing push-sups, etc.) that conform to what Wilson calls the “principle of minimal sufficiency.”  Making players run as a consequence for mental mistakes or poor performance is a favorite of coaches.  Wilson, it seems, is not totally against such consequences.  What he is against are consequences that lead to a change in the player’s story.

Here’s an example:  a player screws up by hitting a ball out down the line (a huge no-no in our gym.)  Perhaps she does it a few times, and it’s clear this is a habit that needs changing.  We decide that running after every error will give her the motivation to make the change quickly.  Now, whether she makes the change or not is not the issue I want to highlight – maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t.  The issue is this:  do these consequences result in the player telling a different story about herself?  Wilson suggests that it might, especially if the running is severe.  He argues that the player’s story might evolve into something like this:  “I’m someone that lacks the internal motivation or the ability to be mindful enough to make changes on my own in light of feedback.  I need a coach that kicks my butt, otherwise I can’t do it.  In fact, it is not even my responsibility to change without such consequences.”  Sounds far-fetched, at first glance.  But Wilson argues that self-narratives may largely be unconscious and the changes might be going on “behind the scenes,” so-to-speak.  If he’s right, then a story like this is going to have some far-ranging negative consequences.  The last thing I want as a coach are players that continually rely on everyone else for the motivation to make changes.  I want players that are proactive, and that develop the ability to be mindful enough to make changes with simple video and verbal feedback in the course of games in practice.

Wilson suggests, therefore, that severe consequences may lead to desired behavior change, but at the expense of long-term habits, actions, and decisions that result from self-narrative changes.  To combat this possible problem, he advises that consequences be “minimal enough” to spur change, but not so intense as to disturb a healthy self-narrative that embodies important values directing long term behavior.  This is the “principle of minimal sufficiency.”

(It should be clear that just as severe consequences may shape self-narratives, excessive rewards or “incentives” may do the same.)

We want players that want and can make changes on their own with the help and direction of feedback.  Wilson makes us pause to reflect on using consequences such as running (or rewards) to spur this process along.  His theory requires us to think carefully about the type of narratives we want our players to possess and how to develop them properly.

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Trust this Type of Intuition (not this other type)

“Wow, we are playing poorly right now.  What’s the deal?” – Coach

“They look tense, I think they are too wound up.” – Assistant

“I think you’re right.  Time-out!” – Coach

This is an example of a retroductive (sometimes called abductive) inference, or an inference from a surprising fact to another possible fact that explains the surprise.  In the case above, poor play is the surprise, and retroduction supplies the cause:  anxiety.

Logician Charles Peirce argues that retroduction is the first step of any scientific inquiry.  Moreover, he argues we are wired to make this kind of inference.  Think about how long it takes you to guess at an explanation for some surprise event.  Not long.  Think about how many guesses you have to go through in order to find the truth.  Not many.  In fact, Peirce suggests that just as the gift of the spider is to weave webs, the gift of human beings is to guess well, that is, to find causes quickly by retroductive inference. In some cases he even uses the language of religion.  He writes in a letter:  “Retroduction gives hints that come straight from our dear and adorable Creator…It is the side of human intellect that is exposed to influence from on High.”

In a newly published book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman shows (via experimental research) that the region of our mind he calls System 1 (roughly the unconscious) is, in fact, very adept at making causal inferences (Peirce’s retroductions.)  They appear, just as Peirce notes, to our conscious minds (Kahneman’s System 2) as suggestions, as intuitions.  Kahneman, however, also shows that System 1 generates other intuitions and suggestions to problems that are not logically of the form of a retroduction.  Consider the following exchange:

“What do you think, is she good enough for our team?  Should we recruit her?” – Coach

“I think so, she looks pretty good.  She certainly looks the part of an outside of hitter.”  – Assistant

The assistant in this case has an intuitive suggestion supplied by System 1.  But the suggestion is not of the nature of a retroductive conclusion.  The coach is not asking the assistant for a specific cause that might explain something.  Rather, the coach is asking for an evaluation.  Making evaluations is essentially a kind of inductive inference that typically involves statistical reasoning.  A good outside hitter, by one measure, is one that kills the ball 40% of the time and makes less than 10% errors.

It turns out, Kahneman claims, that System 1 is terrible at induction and statistical reasoning in general.  Indeed, System 1 will not even attempt to make an induction, but will perform some other type of inference (usually something like an inference to similarity – which it is good at – as in, “she looks like other good outside hitters.)  Sometimes this will work, but most of the time it won’t.  Moneyball is an extended analysis of what happens when we substitute conscious evaluations (System 2-guided statistical studies) for intuitive suggestions in order to do our player evaluations:  essentially, we win more.

What does all this mean?  When we have to make evaluations of players for recruiting, playing time, etc., don’t trust your intuitions.  Instead, spend time doing stats and trust those.  But, when the situation calls for an explanation, as in, what is going on here?, what is leading to this on the court?, trust your gut.  You certainly could be wrong, but after just a few educated guesses, you’ll likely hit on the cause.

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Love, Loyalty, Trust and the Meaning of Life (Wooden, Royce, and the Foundations of Team Culture IV)

Willing, practical, thoroughgoing devotion to a cause is the meaning of loyalty.  A team that has a cause has a foundation, a purpose, and a particular structure.  Here is a model of that structure, in general. by J. Brent CrouchPlayers and coaches are loyal to the cause by freely devoting themselves to it and working to realize it.  In return for their loyalty, the cause gives each player and coach meaning, purpose, and direction.  In effect, the cause gives each loyal servant a meaningful life.  The blue and yellow arrows in diagram represent loyalty and purpose.

These double arrows further illustrate that every member of our team lies upon the same “level.”  Here at St. Mary’s we speak of “SMCVB,” or “St. Mary’s College Volleyball.”  SMCVB is, most generally, our cause.  SMCVB is not the coaching staff, not the players, not the athletic department.  SMCVB is an ideal of a thriving, competitive, winning volleyball program.  Players come and go, as do coaches.  But SMCVB does not.  With respect to it, coaches, players, and staff are alike servants. It stands above, we stand below.  SMCVB is constantly calling to those of us loyal to it to do something else right now to help realize it.  As we heed that call, we are rewarded with meaning, purpose.  And, as we’ll now see perhaps more clearly, a community of teammates that is shot through with love and trust now becomes possible.

Loyalty and purpose set up the basic foundation and structure of our team.   Trust and love are then set within that edifice.  The most fundamental meaning of trust in the model of team culture we are developing here is trust that our teammates and coaches and staff are loyal to the same cause.   If this trust is there, then I know that you and I are on the same boat and rowing in the same direction.  I have a teammate now, a friend, someone who has made my cause their own.  I know that when you push me or question me or lend me a hand, in general, when you hold me accountable, that you are doing so in service to our shared cause.  The green arrows running from players and coaches to the blue arrows representing loyalty – these green arrows represent trust.

While I am loyal to the cause and trust that you are too (how to build this trust is another blog later…), I love my teammates.  What does this mean?  We make no attempt at giving a philosophical definition of this term, nor do we intend to review all the relevant literature.  Instead, we let our model guide us.  It is reasonable to assume that love has something to do with doing what you can to help another flourish and thrive.  M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Travelled, makes this element of love its central component.  He defines love as, “the willingness to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth.”   Peck goes to pains to argue that love is not primarily a feeling, but a habit of action.  It is for us, as well.  When we love our teammate or player or coach, we don’t necessarily feel particular emotions (though we may).  Rather, we primarily are willing to do things for them.

What things we do, however, are not necessarily things the other wants.  Plenty of players don’t want to do a “coach-on-one” consequence for a poor defensive play.  Coaches that love their players, however, do the drill anyway, simply because doing so helps this player realize her cause.  SMCVB will live and thrive if good defensive players exist to serve it.  Trust that the player and coach share the same cause makes the experience of a “coach-on-one” meaningful and productive.  If done properly (not merely as a “punishment” but as something that actually builds the skill and habits necessary for good defensive play), it will actually build trust.

Our model suggests then that love is the activity of helping another realize their cause. The red arrows represent this activity in our diagram.

For the sake of thoroughness, here is another model of a perfectly structured team.  by J. Brent CrouchI’ll write several more posts on related topics:  (1) how to build loyalty, trust, and love; (2) how to us this model to diagnose team chemistry problems and to find solutions; (3) further support for this model in psychological studies of motivation.





Wooden, Royce, and the Foundations of Team Culture III


Image by trevor.patt via Flickr

We start at once from Royce’s initial definition of loyalty and then develop his account of a cause. (He offers a much more general and abstract definition as well, but that one won’t concern us at this point.)

Royce:  Loyalty is “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”

Loyalty is willing in the sense that it is our free choice to devote ourselves to a cause.

Loyalty is practical in the sense that it is not merely a feeling, emotion, or mental state, but collects concrete actions in service to a cause.  Loyalty is not a state of mind but a quality of things you do.  It is not an adjective, nor a noun, but an adverb.

The devotion involved in true loyalty is thoroughgoing in the sense that it is complete, not merely partial.  Thoroughgoing devotion is does not fall merely between the hours of 9-5 Monday through Friday, but rather is constituted by the fact that all our actions are made in light of our cause.  This doesn’t mean that every action directly contributes to our cause, but that every action is made with reference to it.

People who willingly, practically, and thoroughly act to realize their shared cause is a team that is loyal.

So, then, what exactly is a cause?  My wife’s cause is “relieving pelvic pain.”  Many collegiate volleyball teams are loyal to the cause of winning their respective conferences.  A research chemist may make her cause “discovering the truth about fundamental particles and their interactions,” or something like that.  These examples readily suggest that a cause is like a goal.  Certainly, this is part of the story.  A cause is a goal.  But it is not merely that.  For instance, someone could (and many do) make “justice” their cause.   Justice is, in some sense, a goal, but it is more abstract and general than what we ordinarily think of as a goal.  Justice is not a tangible thing nor is it a state of affairs (though it can describe a state of affairs, or rather, be partly instantiated in a state of affairs.)  No, justice is more fundamentally an ideal.

Causes are ideals.   Three important consequences follow from this fact.  First, in common accounts of loyalty (Wooden’s seems to be included), loyalty is typically to a person or thing or doctrine or system.  In each case, we are loyal to things.  The problem with binding ourselves to a thing, be it a  person, doctrine, or system is that we lose autonomy.  We lose our freedom.  Loyalty to a person may amount, in this common account, to doing what the other person wants to do, perhaps blindly.  Or at least it is a slippery slope in this direction.  Loyalty to a doctrine, particularly one that is taken literally, amounts to the same thing.  Loyalty to a particular system, especially one ready-made is not much different.  Loyalty to an ideal cause, on the other hand, calls forth our free activity and creative energy.  The cause of Justice does not tell you what to do, it demands that you figure out what you should do.  It is something that calls forth action, specifically action that is designed to realize it. But, what action is called for is not clear.  Loyalty to a cause does not limit our autonomy, but rather is the condition for the possibility of autonomy.  By freely chosing a cause and then serving it, we open up our creativity while simultaneously grounding it.  We freely act and our action has direction, purpose, and meaning.

To illustrate the foregoing difference (and hint at those that follow), consider the difference between these two types of loyalty:  loyalty to your spouse vs. loyalty to your marriage.  In the first, we are loyal to a person, in the second we are loyal to an ideal:  the ideal of a perfected, healthy relationship.  Another example:  consider the difference between a player that is loyal to another player (or coach) vs a player that is loyal to the cause of the team (which may be something like “be a thriving, continually improving, confident unit.”)  In latter cases of both examples, the cause calls for free and creative action by each person loyal to the cause; it is not readily clear that this is the case in the former cases.

Let’s return to the second consequence of the ideal nature of causes.  Direction, purpose, and meaning motivate us.  We seek it out.  A cause that has become our cause therefore motivates us.  In a sense, a cause causes activity in those who devote themselves to it.  This point is not in conflict with the point above that loyalty involves autonomy (the fact that we freely chose our cause and the fact that the cause doesn’t tell exactly what to do or how to fulfill it.)  The kind of “causation” that ideal causes possess is more like a calling.  Our ideal cause calls to us, animates it, pulls us in its direction, fascinates us.  But it forces nothing.   Those who have a cause thus also have a calling.

Third, and finally, an ideal cause is a standard.  This point dovetails with Wooden’s claim that loyalty to standards is part of the highest form of loyalty.  If we have a cause, we can clearly ask ourselves, “Does this action help us achieve our cause? Is it line with our cause?  Is our team really being willing, active, and thoroughgoing with respect to our cause? And, more particularly, do our system and specific values that we teach our team actually work in fulfilling our cause?”  These questions cannot be addressed without a focal point, a center, something in terms of which we can measure our progress and set our direction and course.  An ideal cause does this.

Now, to sum up where we are:  Loyalty to a cause provides the foundation for a team because it binds each member to something that is fixed and stable through time.  But, because the cause is an ideal (and not a person or unchanging doctrine or system), the cause calls for free and creative action to realize it.  It calls for autonomous people, not mindless servants.  And, further, because causes are ideal, they call for us to help realize them:  causes therefore motivate.  Finally, causes set a standard in terms of which we can begin thinking about those methods and actions, systems and values, that actually work toward realizing our cause.  I think this account of loyalty – willing, practical, thoroughgoing devotion to a cause – provides what Wooden is looking for, and why Wooden wants to loyalty at the center and bottom of his pyramid.

We are getting closer to a full model of a thriving team culture.

Wooden, Royce, and the Foundations of Team Culture II

Like John Wooden, I think that loyalty should found teams because it provides stability and  consistency, and teams that possess both will not, in Wooden’s words, “waffle in the wind when things get tough.”  Loyalty, according to Wooden, is essentially an act of holding fast, an act of linking ourselves to something that doesn’t change, doesn’t waver.  It is an anchor.  Whatever else changes, our loyalty doesn’t, and hence we set our team upon a strong foundation.

So far, so good.  Wooden’s account of loyalty raises, however, an issue regarding the object of loyalty.  We should, Wooden claims, be loyal primarily to ourselves.  By this Wooden means “our standards, system, and values.”  We worried last post that these may need to change in certain circumstances, and so making an unwavering commitment to them might not allow for flexibility and growth.  If some standard or system or value to which we are loyal doesn’t work, surely we should reconsider it.  Does Wooden’s account of loyalty preclude this?  Perhaps.  To be fair to Wooden, we really need to clarify what he means by standards, system, and values, and we need to understand if their source is really ourselves. (And this is not a line of thought I want to pursue more here.)

I’ll put the objection in clearer terms:   we want a strong consistent foundation for our team and a way of binding our team to that foundation.  Loyalty is, in part, the act of binding fast, of securing to a foundation, and the object that we are loyal to is the foundation.  The objection to Wooden is that “ourselves” is not a sturdy foundation.  We (and hence our standards, values and systems) may have to change in order to build a successful team.

And so, the issue is what is the proper object of loyalty?  What is the foundation?  It must be something against which we judge whether or not our values and systems are successful.  Put differently, it must be, in part, how we judge whether or not things are working.  And to provide stability, it must itself be stable and consistent. 

If we turn at this point from Wooden to philosopher Josiah Royce, we find some help.  The primary object of loyalty for Royce is a cause.  A cause, it turns out, is not only a stable, strong foundation, but it provides other positive benefits beyond anchoring our teams.

Let’s start with an example. My wife Marcy is a doctor of physical therapy and specifically devotes her practice to relieving pelvic pain.  Relieving this particular form of pain is her cause.  As her cause, she devotes herself to it, attempts to fulfill it, and each day at work it guides her actions and decisions. When she succeeds, she is understandably gratified.  When she doesn’t, she continues to work and think of new treatments.  She certainly has some “systems,” “standards,” and “values” in place from which she rarely deviates.  But she wouldn’t hesitate to change any practical thing she does if she knew it would alleviate pain and help the patient heal.  Her cause never changes, but how she realizes and fulfills the cause might if circumstances dictate.

Marcy’s loyalty produces the same benefits that Wooden identified, and which Royce also notes.  He writes, “Loyalty…tends to unify life, to give it center, fixity, stability, ” and concludes that, “to live a loyal life is to live in a way which is certainly free from many well-known sources of inner dissatisfaction.  Thus hesitancy is corrected by loyalty.”

Yet, Royce goes further:  loyalty not only grounds us and our teams, but also provides meaning and fulfillment.  It is not only that on which we stand, but that toward which we strive.  This is a significant advance, in my opinion, over Wooden’s form of loyalty.   Consider again Marcy’s cause:  relieving pelvic pain.  In all cases, in failure and success and the cases between, her meaning fills her work-life. She has a purpose, she has something to do each day, and some reason to work hard.  Her cause motivates her. Moreover, her cause unites her with a community – a team – of other doctors, each of whom shares the same cause as her.  It should take no special argument to convince us that meaning and fulfillment develop fully in relationships with others.

Loyalty to a cause might not only provide, therefore, a foundationof a te

am, but also the structure of a team.  I’ll discuss in more detail what causes are and how they knit together teams into a strong, consistent, stable, meaningful units with a coherent structure next post.


Wooden, Royce, and the Foundations of Team Culture I

John Wooden reprint

Image by MarkMcCartney via Flickr

This is the first post in a series dedicated to the foundations and structure of team culture.   Our purpose, however, is not to create an abstract theory, but rather to develop a coherent plan of action that will help us put together a winning team on and off the court.  The theory is just a necessary step towards clarifying our action.  Immanuel Kant claims, “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”  I modify this to say:  “Thoughts without action are empty, action without concepts are blind.”  At the end, we want a set of very specific actions that build a meaningful and winning team culture. 

In today’s post, I’m going to begin an argument, like John Wooden, that loyalty grounds great teams.  Unlike Wooden, I’m going to claim that loyalty’s central feature is found in service to a cause, not in commitment to a set of “standards, system, and values,” nor a commitment to one’s players or teammates.  In this claim, I follow Josiah Royce, an important American philosopher.

Let’s get started by doing a close reading of John Wooden’s explanation of loyalty:

     Loyalty is part of human beings’ higher nature.  It is also part of the nature of great teams and those who lead them.  The power of Loyalty is the reason I placed it in the center of the Pyramid’s foundation.

     It is impossible to be a good leader without Loyalty to your Organization – your team – just as it is impossible to be a good citizen without Loyalty to your country.  You must, of course, have the courage to be loyal to those you lead.  Doing so is not always easy.  It starts, however, with Loyalty to yourself – your standards, your system, your values.  Compromising them – especially under the banner of expediency – is disloyalty; personal betrayal of yourself.

      “To thine own self be true,” Polonius advised his son, Laertes, in Hamlet.  I cannot improve on Shakespeare, but I will expand just slightly:  “First, do not betray yourself.  Second, do not betray those you lead.”  This is Loyalty.

      A leader who has Loyalty is the leader whose team I wish to be a part of.  And so do others.  Most people, the overwhelming majority of us, wish to be in an organization whose leadership cares about them, provides fairness and respect, dignity and consideration.

      Do so and you find Loyalty in abundance from those you lead.  And you will subsequently lead an organization that will not waffle in the wind when things get tough.

      Loyalty is a most precious and powerful commodity within an organization.  And it starts with the leader who knows what Loyalty means.

To clarify Wooden’s theory, let’s pay attention first (1) to the objects of loyalty that Wooden lists.  He says we should be loyal to:

  1. our organization or team,
  2. our followers (or players),
  3. ourselves, which includes:
    1. our standards
    2. our system
    3. our values

Of these three objects, Wooden suggest that loyalty to ourselves (and hence our commitment to our standards, system, and values) should be primary.

Ok, fair enough.  But what does it mean to be loyal to ourselves?  (2) Being loyal consists primarily in “not betraying,” and, specifically, to have an unwavering commitment to our standards, system, and values.  Presumably this means that our standards cannot change, that we must stick with whatever system we have, and that our values should be enduring and uncompromising.  Ultimately and in effect, Wooden claims that loyalty is therefore a matter of being consistent, of not changing fundamental principles.

If we are loyal to ourselves, if we actually stick to our standards, values, and system, then (3) certain practical effects will flow from our loyalty.  Wooden identifies these:

  1. The team “will not waffle in the wind when things get tough.”
  2. The players will want to be a part of the team.
  3. It will create loyalty in those who follow.

Certainly, 1. is a practical effect of an uncompromising commitment to a particular constellation of standards, system, and values.  Also as certain, inconsistent coaches that waffle in the face of adversity by frequently changing core principles are typically unsuccessful.  And I think Wooden is right:  stable, consistent, confident coaches attract players.

Strangely, Wooden gives another reason for 2:   Teams “whose leadership cares about them, provides fairness and respect, dignity and consideration” also attracts players.  I don’t see how this follows.  It may be, and probably is, true that players are drawn to caring, fair, respectful coaches, but nothing in Wooden’s theory of loyalty suggests that simply by not betraying a core set of standards, system, and values we become caring, fair, and respectful.  We can think of plenty of people that are fully committed to a being unfair, uncaring, and disrespectful.  An organized crime family is likely loyal in Wooden’s sense.  Care, fairness, and respect are particular values, and this account of loyalty does not specify what particular values to be loyal to;  it only tells us to stick to our values.

Be that as it may, here’s one key objection to Wooden’s theory of loyalty:  sometimes we do have to change something.  Wooden is right to value consistency, but unchanging loyalty to certain standards, system, and values is extreme.  Sometimes things just don’t work: the system fails because of personnel or because of the strategies and tactics of our competitors; we learn that some other value is as important or more important that our initial values; or, finally, our standards are too lax or too rigid for a given time of year, practice, team, or whatever particular situation arises. In short, excellent coaches and teams are not only consistent, they are also flexible when the moment calls for it, and healthy teams and coaches grow and change.  By making the central object of loyalty ourselves and what we believe in at some certain time, we run the risk of locking ourselves into a box. Ultimately, we want standards, systems, values that work, and what works one year may not work five years later.

The question then become this:  what will guide us through changes so that we don’t lose all bearing and stay consistent at some fundamental level?  Wooden actually has an answer in front of him:  it is loyalty, but not loyalty to ourselves.  It is instead loyalty to the first object that Wooden listed:  the Team.  What this means, exactly, we need to think through in the next few posts.  In general, however, it is not loyalty to others on the team (Wooden’s second object of loyalty), but rather a cause that unites the team.

Wooden is right:  loyalty is an anchor that secures the team and prevents it from “waffling in the wind.”  Anchoring to a cause that unites our team, rather than to ourselves or each other, will prove, however, to be a more stable mooring.

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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, Part II

In the first post on this topic, I briefly covered some basic distinctions about signs, and divided them (following Peirce) into icons, indices, and symbols.  Today, I’ll keep my promise to talk a bit about symbols.  I make the general claim, like I did with icons and indices, that it is worthwhile to pay attention to different types of symbols and their uses.  Specifically, I’ll focus on symbols for play calls in volleyball (though the general idea can be applied to any sport), and argue that rhematic symbols are the best choice.  Don’t let the fancy name throw you – the idea behind it is simple.

First, a quick thought-experiment: Imagine you’re setter and you’re asked to learn a system of numerals for set calls and then when play begins, you have 3 to 5 players yelling numbers are you.  Done?  Now imagine you’re asked to learn some set names that actually tell you something about the set (words like “fast” or “back”) and then you have 3-5 players yelling different sounding words that describe some feature of the action they want you to perform.  Which is the more effective play calling system?  Let’s dive in and understand why the second is better.

Quick review from the first post:  while icons work because they resemble the object (demo of skill represents the skill), and indices work because they are physically or causally connected to their object (serve out signifies an arm swing that is too fast), symbols stand for anything we want since they work by means of agreements between people.  We can agree to call a certain basketball play a “39,” a “post-24,” or “flare,” or whatever.  We can agree to call a certain volleyball set a “9,” a “Go,” or any other combination of words.  After some practice, players and coaches know what symbol stands for what.

Still, there are better and worse ways to construct our symbol systems.  Symbols for volleyball play calls, in particular, need to be (1) easily learned, (2) easily said (3) not easily confused with other calls, and (4) should prompt a specific behavior from the setter effectively (that is, a particular type of set.)

Using these criteria, we can rule out some existing systems immediately.  This link takes you to a volleyball play calling symbol system that makes use of a system of numbers.  Basically, the court divides into 6 zones (called 1-6) and low sets are “1′s” and high sets are “2′s.”  Combining the two parameters, you get set calls like “4-1,” or “2-2.”  Pretty simple and elegant.  I don’t, however, think it’s great.

(1) Perhaps a player can learn this system quickly because it is a system based on some simple rules.  In fact, knowing the rules behind it (the court divisions and labels and the two possible set heights and names), you can deduce the name of all the play calls yourself.  There are a total of 12. This is, in general, the great strength of any group of symbols that is systematically constructed according to a few simple rules – you can calculate and deduce.  This great benefit is awesome in mathematical inquiries or any science that makes use of math; it is, however, pretty useless on the volleyball court. Deducing names of sets is not a skill that is ever required to win volleyball games.  The “easily said” requirement (2) seems to me to turn, in part, on the number of syllables of the word.  Less syllables, easier to say.  None of the words in this system are less than two syllables; in fact, its creator suggests we combine the two numbers instead of say them separately, so a “1-1″ means “eleven” and “2-1″ means “twenty-one.”  Almost all the plays calls are now three syllables – not great.  (3) requires that a given call doesn’t sound like another call.  Imagine being a setter and hearing up to five players yelling calls that are all combinations of numbers – I leave it to you to decide if this is confusing or not.  (4) requires that the symbols prompt specific behaviors effectively.  Any symbol can prompt any kind of behavior if we agree what symbol prompts what behavior.  Yet, consider the following:  you watch a volleyball match and hear two play calls to a setter from two hitters.  One yells “Back” the other yells “9.”  Before you see what happens next, I’m guessing you have at least some hypothesis about what “Back” means; “9″ on the other hand could mean anything.  There is some connection “Back” has to a specifiable behavior – maybe, for example, it means, “Hey setter, set the ball back behind you to me.” “9,” on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any obvious connection to particular behaviors.  The final nail in the coffin for the play calling system we’re evaluating here is precisely this – there is no qualitative connection between its symbol (the play calls) and its object (the particular sets). A numbered symbolic system is simply too conventional, so it doesn’t readily suggest specific behaviors (particular kinds of sets.)

The consideration suggested by (4) is important.  A new distinction will help us here.  A rheme is a sign that produces in whoever hears it (in the case of auditory signs) consciousness of a particular quality.  An example of a rhematic symbol is a word that draws our attention to some quality of the object, such as “red” to describe the color of a ball.  A play call like “Back” is a symbol that brings to the mind of a setter something like a region behind her or an action to set the ball behind her.  “9″ does not bring to mind primarily a region or action, but rather something else entirely.

Now then, for a way of constructing a bunch of effective play calls.  First, make all the calls rhematic symbols, so that each call picks out some distinguishing qualitative characteristic of the set.   For example, a “gap” could be set a set that goes in the gap between two blockers.  A “fast” is a set that is, well, very fast.  A “quick” is low and fast.  These examples are easily learned (by hitters and setters) precisely because they pick out some quality of the set; and they suggest quickly and efficiently specific behaviors to setters. So, “gap,” “fast,” and “quick” satisfy (1) and (4).  A second rule of thumb is to make all calls one syllable.  This satisfies (2).   Now, for (3).  Unlike the play-calling system composed only and entirely of numerals, it would be better if each symbol were unrelated.  Don’t, in other words, have an orderly system of calls (at least this is good advice in the case of volleyball play calls.)  The goal here is to make them distinct from one another so they are not easily confused. “Gap” and “Quick” don’t sound alike and don’t refer to the same type of quality (one refers to a region on the net, the other to the tempo of the set.)  Selecting unrelated symbols is, therefore, the third and final suggestion.

To summarize:

These are the requirements for an effective set of play calls for volleyball.  Symbols should be:

(1) easily learned.

(2) easily said.

(3) not easily confused.

(4) suggest specific behaviors.

We can meet these requirements if we:

First, use rhematic symbols that pick out some actual quality of the set (location, tempo, front or behind the setter, etc.)

Second, make each symbol a one-syllable word.

Third, select unrelated symbols.  “Gap” picks a region and “Fast” picks a tempo, plus they don’t sound alike.

Go here for some explanation of Peirce’s theory of signs.  I think someone should write a book on effective communication in sports based on Peirce’s theory.

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