PART I: Process – Fail Better or Fail Worse

The New Zealand National Rugby Team is one of the most decorated and successful sports organizations in the history of the world. Their dominance over the sport and their unique pre-game ritual – the “haka” – has led many to celebrate, study and fear the “All Blacks.”

To many, the success of the All Blacks is simply a byproduct of having elite athletes that are faster, stronger, and more talented than their opponents. Their win percentage, years ranked as the #1 team in the world, and their historical dominance over their competitors would suggest as much.

But if you’re familiar with this blog – you should know that I’m not sold on that. At the micro level, talent – or how we perceive it – doesn’t exist. To become “elite” in any field, one must create, cultivate, master, and command a process. They must sacrifice, compete, fail, learn, fail again, and learn more. This “process” ultimately becomes WHO they are rather than WHAT they do. On the macro level, to succeed on the margins (to be the best of the best), it goes far deeper than accumulating the best athletes. An organizational process must be cultivated, mastered, and commanded. Similarly, the process must become WHO the organization is not WHAT they do. We call this “culture” but it is so much deeper than a singular word can encompass that it feels lazy when I write it.

The All Blacks and the New England Patriots aren’t two of the best organizations in the world because they simply obtain more “talent” than their competitors. Rather, they are the best because of WHO they are as an organization – which is founded by the processes they have instilled. The All Blacks focus on character above skill – “sweep the sheds” – emphasizing that WHO they are is more important than WHAT they do. It’s not by chance that the Patriots have won for a decade with different key personnel. They trade, release, sign players every year that leaves the public questioning their intent. But year after year, they win. Different players, different competitors, same results. When they lose, they learn. They then lose better. When they win, they learn. They win better. Process. Culture.

Eventually, we come to the realization that similar to that of these successful organizations: our lives are simply the natural consequence of our processes. We can’t predict our future. But, we can invent it. We can shape our lives by developing a process in which we are the sole owners. But it is up to the individual – and the individual alone – to develop that process and be the architect of their own future.

Process

I interact with student-athletes daily. I get to witness their processes. I have witnessed kids who have mastered their process, bought in late, quit early, and everywhere in between. For the most part, however, I’ve seen more kids without processes than with. And if I am correct in my aforementioned assertions – we are the consequences of our processes – many a student-athlete will fail to achieve success in their endeavors. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot that we can do. Coaches, teachers, parents, and friends can all influence; we can persuade, motivate, discourage. But in the end, it is up to each individual to invent their own future. They and they alone must cultivate, master, command their own process.

This is often where we fail them. We handcuff student-athletes to the point that they can never truly develop a successful learning process. And in my opinion, success isn’t the result of a process. Rather, success is the embodiment of a process. Wins, money, good grades – all byproducts that come from becoming the process.

Unfortunately, we continually focus on and measure success based on results, rather than processes. And because we measure success as results – we increasingly shield ourselves and our kids from negative results.

Failure: An Important Step

It seems increasingly impossible to allow a student-athlete to make a mistake. Which is understandable. It is difficult to “see the point” in failing; and moreover, to knowingly allow failure. We want to prevent every mistake, we want to account for every flaw.

Consequently, we hand-hold every step of the way.

And because we care so much for them, in a sense, we fail them. We never let student-athletes establish their own process. Experience failure, learn from it, try again, fail better. A parent’s passion, a teacher’s desire, a coach’s will – all positive intentions to help student-athletes grow. Unfortunately, we are preventing student-athletes from not only developing a process, but also cultivating it, mastering it, owning it!

Today, student-athletes are continually given immediate external feedback. Their mistakes are corrected for them. Their processes are provided to them. “Do your homework,” “read these pages,” “shoot this way,” “don’t spill that drink” – all external cues to promote action. However, processes that lead to strong character and success are internally produced. They are then cultivated, mastered, and owned. WE BECOME THE PROCESSES THAT WE INTERNALLY DEVELOP. I understand that students should do homework (or not); should read; should study; but if they’re not the ones actively seeking learning – they will never learn. We can tell them to read this book, do that assignment – but engagement comes from within. And only from within. In the current landscape of student-athletics, we see helicopter parents and coaches, constant hand holding, constant forced action. Consequently, we are seeing more disengagement from student-athletes in all venues.

Additionally, to counter the continual failure that surrounds us, we celebrate results; rather than processes. In baseball, we celebrate the 13 year old kid who is bigger than his 12 year old peers. We celebrate swinging bunt hits, ground ball singles, and meaningless wins. However, we aren’t actually celebrating “success;” because we aren’t celebrating processes. Rather, we are celebrating results. And eventually, those results change. Because the 13 year old kid won’t always be bigger than his peers, because swinging bunts and ground balls become outs, and because “wins” become losses against those with better long term processes.

Our best intentions are inhibiting the learning process. Students are not challenging themselves because they fear failure. Parents are not challenging kids because THEIR PARENTS FEAR FAILURE. So they do everything they can to shield them from it. But failure is our greatest teacher. The byproduct of failing is learning. We assess why we failed, we train accordingly, we try again and we learn to fail better.By celebrating results, we are actually shielding kids from the feedback of reality. Consequently, we prevent them from learning from failure; and we remove the huge learning process of picking themselves up after falling down. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t care about self-esteems or egos. And paradoxically, because we’ve never allowed kids to lose, they become losers. Because we’ve never allowed kids to fail, they fail worse.

Playing

Previous generations went outside and played in the school yard for hours day after day. There was no game schedule. Kids split up into teams and played against each other. We were simultaneously the playmakers and the rulemakers. We didn’t follow a game schedule; a pitch limit; an inning restriction; umpire calls. We didn’t have a 3B coach telling us to bunt or a 1B coach telling us to steal. We weren’t “rewarded” a trophy or even a pat on the back. Our reward was the internal satisfaction that we were having fun – and for most of us – competing to be the best in the yard. We were able to develop a process – based on hours of hours of reps – of what worked and what didn’t. On that playground or in the street, I failed a lot. I struck out, made errors, missed shots, dropped passes. Internally, I wanted to do better. For me. I developed a process for that. This process was different than both my brothers’ but we all had a process that made sense to us. I would continue to fail – but I failed better. I struck out less, I made less errors, I made less mistakes. Why? Because that’s what humans do. Under the right circumstances, left to our own devices, we adapt, we grow, we learn. We develop a process that BECOMES us. I think back to those playground days and most of what I am today can be attributed to that (good and bad).

We live in a different world today. Formalized games are the new training ground. At a 9u game last Spring, a coach of another team asked: “How could you possibly coach the whole team by yourself?” I looked over at his bench – 5 coaches and 10 players. On almost every pitch, some instruction was given: “Bend your back,” “Throw strikes,” “Take a little off,” “Keep your head in,” “Move to your right,” etc. Regardless of whether the instruction had merit (it usually didn’t), the players were not allowed to figure it out themselves.

At the game, our parents were no different “teaching” their kids. “Move in.” “Watch for the bunt.” “Don’t swing at that!” “Run to second!” A parent approached me after a game once and asked why I didn’t teach cut-off’s to the team. The team… of 9 year olds. Of boys that were wearing $100 uniforms (seriously), getting balls and strikes called (seriously), and coaches giving them take and bunt signs (seriously). Another coach told me that his 10 year old son just got back from a cross country tournament. They were “national champions.” Cool. You flew cross country for a handful of groundballs, a handful of swings, playing against a neighboring town 2000 miles away, but what did they learn? “We’re teaching them to be winners.” Ok. They’re all winners, they’re all good; until they’re not.

Kids aren’t developing a process to handle failure and they’re not developing a critical thinking process because they’ve been told what to do on every pitch. So, how are we preparing them to handle failure when it comes or critically think to account for randomness (and in the game of baseball just like in life failure and randomness comes for all of us).

Winning

The thing about winning at the elite levels – that most players, parents, coaches can not comprehend – is that winning is done on the margins. These margins are affected by YEARS of process. It’s easy to watch LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry excel, win and attribute it to some sort of genetic gift. But what is not seen is an entire lifetime of failure, of learning, of process. And when we inspect the processes of successful people further, we can see why winning isn’t something they do… it’s who they are. THEY ARE THEIR PROCESS. It’s why the greatest basketball player on the planet cleans up the team locker room; it’s why Dak Prescott has been able to achieve levels of success that nobody thought possible.

Most would simply see an athlete picking up garbage. But this minor act shows WHO Dak Prescott actually is and lends some insight into the processes that have led to his athletic success.

Unfortunately, the concept of “winning” has been corrupted. A winner isn’t necessarily someone who wins a 10u National Championship, wins every game, collects more trophies. It is someone that can learn from losing, grow, and fail better. It is someone who can develop a process to maximize their abilities while pushing others and build a character that will enable them to succeed in BOTH good times – wins – and bad – losses. Larry Bird wasn’t a winner because he happened to win NBA Titles. HE WON NBA TITLES BECAUSE HE WAS A WINNER. Unfortunately, in today’s world most can’t see the difference. They can’t see that he was a winner, because of years of failure, years of learning, and years of developing a process that would be uniquely his – not because he won meaningless trophies as a kid or had a parent/coach critiquing and “correcting” every one of his movements.

9U Cutoffs

The irony of all of this: Due to the significant amount of more formalized games, our kids receive significantly less reps. Less opportunities to learn. Less opportunities to fail. Less opportunities to grow. Wasting more time in the car; wasting more time waiting for their games, wasting even more time going to inefficient, time consuming “Practices” twice a week. In return, parents have a hobby; a social outlet; bragging rights for their kids trophies; and a general positive feeling that their child is getting better. The byproduct – kids fail less, fail worse and never learn to fail better.

By the time I was 9, I had 1000s of swings, 1000s of groundballs (on a concrete surface), made 1000s of mistakes. I aligned myself up wrong and was too slow on cutoffs 100s of times. After each mistake, I had to either learn or fail again. I was developing the foundation of my process. The 9 year old kid on my team had one opportunity to take a cutoff (only a handful of balls were hit to the outfield in the games they played). How can we expect kids to learn with limited reps? How can we expect kids to develop, cultivate, master a process that will see them through the ups and downs of baseball (and life) if they aren’t actually given the chance?

A Paradigm Shift

That’s what we are building at the Compete Academy. A new way of thinking of athletic training and performance. A new way (or an old way depending on how you look at it) of viewing “winning” and “losing.” We want to analyze, question and change the way we do things. We want to bring processes to student-athletes and with it – individual accountability, pride, and strong character.

How we do it:
PART II: HUMILITY IN TRAINING

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