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.