In the last few weeks I’ve read two excellent pieces about how organizations handle mistakes, and they came from two complete different worlds.
The first is a fascinating book, Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. He talks a lot about company culture, and how it’s critically important to the success of your organization to establish the right culture. One of his main points, and one that he says makes Pixar a special place to work, is that they openly acknowledge that they will have problems. When they discover a problem, instead of hiding it, everyone works hard to solve that problem. It doesn’t matter if it makes people uncomfortable, it’s the right response for that company.
The other piece was a by Julie Foudy, a Positive Coaching Alliance National Advisory Board Member. In her article and video (here), Julie talks about how emphasizing winning over development makes for an impossible environment for kids to learn and grow. She fully recognizes that paid coaches, “have to win to keep their jobs.” But she also points out that, “Making mistakes is a part of mastering any skill, and a young athlete will be fearful of failing when taking on a new challenge if a coach can’t concentrate more on development than the outcome on the scoreboard.”
So here we have people in fields as far apart from each other as possible: kids playing a sport and trained adults in a company. And they both come to the same conclusion. Accept mistakes as a natural part of growth.
I thought back to the many organizations that I’ve worked for, and how some environments were dysfunctional and uncomfortable. I once had the owner of the company I work for regularly yell at the people around him for perceived or real mistakes- sometimes for minutes at a time. It drastically affected our work environment, and I was actually relieved when I left that company. (Does this remind anyone of a coach they’ve had?)
Mistakes on Swim Teams
So how does this affect us on swim teams?
We all make mistakes. Coaches, swimmers, parents. But an intriguing aspect of this for me is do we embrace ALL types of mistakes? Or put another way, how far does this open attitude extend?
It seems obvious we need to separate mistakes made during the process of improving ourselves, and mistakes made that hurt or limit the environment of themselves or others. A false start on an important relay is very different from a swimmer taking drugs, or punching out a teammate. The first provides a legitimate opportunity for growth, while the second requires a warning or possible expulsion from the team.
And the same goes for coaches. A coach overtraining kids is an entirely different matter than a coach punishing swimmers for mistakes by making them do potentially damaging amounts of pushups or butterfly.
My problem is that the above are basically black and white examples when the world is filled with grey. How can we tell the difference? How do we know when it’s an opportunity for growth, and when it’s a step towards leaving the team?
I really don’t know. My instinct tells me to determine the intent behind the action. Kids have moments of inexplicable lunacy, even more than us adults. But they are horrible at lying, so it’s usually easy to tell the difference between an intent to improve themselves versus an intent to hurt someone else.
My rule for swimmers and coaches is: Follow the intent.
Issues with parents
Parents are a whole other matter. Many parents get so caught up in their own child that nothing else matters. They may not realize how disruptive they are, and they may not care. Their intent is generally crystal clear. (I had a parent once ask me if I could push the start time of a away meet back an hour so their child wouldn’t be late.)
In other words, parental intent isn’t usually the issue. The issue is their level of awareness as to how their actions affect the team (i.e swimmers, including their own, the coaching staff, and even other parents). If they aren’t aware, then it becomes a good teaching opportunity with them. If they are aware and don’t care, that’s when it can turn to warnings and possible expulsion.
In summary, if you think about intent and awareness of how actions affect others, you can usually determine whether a mistake is a natural part of growth, or a damaging event.