Why Label Failure Negatively?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

By Peter Schwab
AFL Director of Coaching

Isn’t it good that most of us who coach below the professional level in any sport do not have to answer to the media? Professional coaches do, but sometimes you wonder why they feel compelled to speak so disparagingly about failure or below expectation performance.

I sometimes wonder who they are speaking for. Is it an attempt to placate the supporters of the Club and let them know they are just as disappointed as they are? Is it to satisfy the internal positioning knowing the Board and others may want to hear it publicly?  Or is it for the players?

The last group is the main group the coach should really be caring about what he says to them and what he says about them publicly. Players in my view don’t respond to public comments about their performances, they know how they performed and they expect they will be told, but it’s better if it’s done in-house and after the heat of the moment has gone.

Comments like, “they are playing like individuals”, “they need to stand up”, “we need to re-engineer a few players to get them going”, and “we need a lift across the board”, really mean nothing and maybe that’s why coaches use these terms sometimes because they know they mean nothing and the players won’t be offended by them.

Some coaches move into more open comment when they actually expose their own playing group and arguably game plan or style when they say things such as, “an aggressive approach, numbers and intensity around the contest brings us undone.”

This may be true but why give yourself up, even if others think it and believe it. This is the sort of conversation which should be done internally and be put to the group in a question for them to answer so they can come up with ideas and a plan or approach to make sure it doesn’t continue to happen.

Wayne Carey, North Melbourne champion and former captain, called North’s capitulation to Port Adelaide a debacle, which as a commentator and former player he is entitled to do, but he also offered advice, “the leaders of that football club had to get behind the ball and rally around. It was just getting the hands on the footy and holding it up.”

Basic but sound advice, that I am sure the players and the coaching staff were in hindsight wondering why they weren’t able to do it. The conversations North Melbourne would be having this week is asking themselves as players and coaches what went wrong and why, so that if they are in the position again they will know how to handle it.

Playing sport for an individual and a team, like most endeavours, is about learning, leave the speculations and recriminations to supporters and the media. They are very good at that. As Henry Ford, US inventor, said, “Failure is only an opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

I liked Mick Malthouse’s advice to his former assistant coach Mark Neeld, in how he could handle the current situation at Melbourne.

Malthouse's main message was to erase negativity. Hard to do when you are losing and there doesn’t appear to be many positives, but he says Melbourne need to look for what’s going right and focus on the positives. I agree with him.

He also talks about the fact you cannot keep saying. “Don’t do this or don’t do that.” What he is saying is also on the money. Negative talk creates confusion in the brain. Players and people need to be told what to do it’s easier for them to follow rather than telling them what you don’t want them to do. This evokes memories of former Hawthorn coach John Kennedy, who implored players “To just do. At least you can come off the ground and say I did this or I laid a tackle, or I chased. I did something.”

One of the main problems which happens when you fail is it either consciously or sub-consciously stops you trying, because you are worried that even if you do your best the result is still the same. But you can’t let this happen, even if you don’t win, there will be positives and so failure must be seen from a different point of view. Take away the negative and see each effort and each performance as a chance to get better, to learn and ultimately take a step towards success.

Coaches can’t afford to label. By labelling yourself or your team as a failure you will close the door for all possibilities of achieving success.

Coaches can’t be too inflexible and restrict players to following orders and reducing them to robots who carry out instructions. Again as Malthouse said, “When you lose games you start to work out sometimes that your structure doesn’t suit the team and you might have to change it around.”

What you also have to do as a coach is tell players what to do to be successful, but be open to their ideas and suggestions about how it could be done differently to achieve the same result. It’s the old cliché of getting “buy-in”. The people in your organisation want to help because they want to get better, they want to learn, they want to contribute and they want to be successful.

I also felt Malthouse made two other great points. Let people know you are with them and discover what it is you really love about the game.

I imagine people at Melbourne Football Club at the moment want to be successful; the issue is whether they are brave enough and strong enough to keep striving. Every person involved needs to answer a simple question in the affirmative, “Do I want to be part of the solution and help Melbourne Football Club be successful?”

There is a simple answer and either way you answer the pathway is clear.

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