Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Coaches' Corner: Is it best to be even-keeled?

Sunrise at California Rowing Club (Photo: B. Kitch)
It's 'common wisdom' among top coaches in major professional and collegiate sports (often echoed by athletes) that it is best to avoid letting the highs get too high and the lows get too low in reference to the emotions that accompany successes and failures. While there can certainly be value in not always succumbing to one's emotions, and reacting impulsively and irrationally in the wake of what appears to be an especially good or poor performance, I disagree with the oft stated cliché and feel that coaches and athletes need to both celebrate the successes and take time wallow in the sorrow and disappointment of the failures.

Rowing, as with all sports, is a competitive endeavor. The very word 'athlete' comes from the Greek verb athlein (to compete for a prize), derived from athlos (contest) and athlon (prize). Athletes, then, are those who compete for a trophy. It takes a lot of effort, talent, and hard work to succeed at any level. Winning in rowing is not easy, and as a result the successes should be celebrated and thoroughly enjoyed by all involved. This doesn't mean that every time you win a race or set a personal best in the weight room or on the erg, you should throw a party and proceed to rest on your laurels, but it does mean that you should allow yourself to feel the sense of accomplishment, and fully realize the connection between the work that was put in and the result of that hard work. Although it might be impressive to others as an external show or façade that you aren't celebrating a big win, there is nothing wrong with enjoying something you have earned, whether you wear it on your sleeve or not.

Similarly, the losses and shortcomings should also be recognized with the appropriate emotional response. Failure to let yourself fully embrace the gloom that accompanies a loss or failed performance can be even more detrimental than failing to enjoy the successes, as that period of gloom can also foster new thinking and a new approach. This is not to say that a reactionary approach is best–sometimes it is good to stay the course, even through minor failures, because reacting to every bump in the road is not a good strategy. However, if things are really on a downward path, something needs to change in order to prevent further poor performances in the future.

For example, if you lose a race to an important opponent whom you could have beaten by a couple of seconds, it probably isn't cause for panic. In such a case, athletes and coaches are usually best served to stay the course and maintain consistency in order to get the payoff down the road that often results from consistency and dedication. But, if you lose a string of three consecutive races by significant margins, it may be appropriate to re-evaluate things and think about trying a new approach. As the saying goes, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is 'the definition of insanity.'

If you fail to let yourself be emotional when it is appropriate, you are limiting yourself and your growth from those moments, whether they are successes or failures.

While I can understand why coaches cite the mantra of not getting too emotional one way or another as a means of staying rational and objective, I think that often this is simply because it seems like the right thing to say. When a coach or athlete wins a big race or game in another sport, it might be the cool thing to say, 'it was just another race, that is what we expected and that's what we came here to do,' in order to appear in control and composed. 'Act like you've been there before,' as people say. However, I think that not letting oneself enjoy hard earned success can have a negative impact rather than a positive one. In fact, I find it funny that some of the best coaches and athletes in the world are the ones who most commonly use the phrase 'don't let the highs get too high or the lows get too low,' because they are clearly driven by success and failures. The top coaches and athletes in the world have a tremendous desire to win, and hate to lose. So, somewhere inside, they are constantly pursuing the successes and working to learn from the failures.

Let's be clear–I am not advocating extreme, impulsive reactions one way or the other based on whichever side of average a particular performance falls. It is always important as a coach and athlete to maintain a level of objectivity and realize that a performance is never as bad as you initially think and never as good as you initially think. Usually, they are somewhere in the middle. This is where a level of objective rationality is important. It's not always easy to take a step back to try and really understand whether a performance is good, bad, or just average. With time and experience, however, this can be learned and used as a tool to spark change when necessary and reinforce success when necessary.

The next time you win a big race or set a personal best on the erg, allow yourself to celebrate and fully enjoy it as a positive reward for success. This doesn't have to be a fist-pumping, chest-pounding outward show of exuberance–it can be as simple as a smile–but it should be honest. What is important is allowing yourself to feel the weight of your accomplishments, as well as failures along the way, as both will further motivate you to succeed and allow you to fully live in the moment–to to draw determination from difficult defeats, and fully experience that rare, sweet instant when victory is secure.

–Justin and the RR Team

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