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8# I am Fallible: 5 Ways to Balance the Paradox of Success

This article marks the eighth installment for the 13 Beliefs of Good Coaches. This post investigates the success paradox--the belief that the best test of any coach is to see what happens after someone makes a mistake.

As a researcher who investigates the paradoxical forces involved in athletics, and as an educator who attempts to help coaches learn to be better coaches, I have been asks (too many time to count) what is the one idea that makes the biggest difference between great coaches and wayward coaches. My simple answer is this: For every positive, there is a negative. Failure is inevitable, so the key to success is to learn to be good at learning from your mistakes. The ability to capitalize on experience is the hallmark of great coaches, and the nemesis of the wayward coach.

One of my research heroes Dr. Robert Sutton of Stanford University once said, “Failure sucks but instructs”. The paradox of success holds true for everyone, including those who deal with very dangerous things like surgery, law enforcement, and flying airplanes. The most often utilized method for discovering what works correctly, is to discover what doesn’t.

If they realize it or not, great coaches accept the paradox of success. In fact, without failure competitive athletics does not exist. In order to experience the thrill of victory, you must accept the agony of defeat. Much of the research that looks at the paradox of success was spurred by the work of Dean Keith Simonton. Dr. Simonton has investigated the differences between geniuses and their more ordinary counterparts. He has concluded that success “is a consequence of sheer productivity… Genius involves doing a lot of what you want to be good at… The most successful creators tend to be those with the most failures!”

Report after report discuss the huge numbers of coaches who are leaving the profession. All of these papers, like the well-written master’s thesis of Shawn Peck from the University of Minnesota Duluth, highlight numerous reasons coaches leave the field. One way to interpret these studies would be to assume that many coaches have no business coaching or don’t know their sport. That would be a wrong interpretation. The reality is that the coaches who stick around are the ones who accept the success paradox; coaching involves many little victories and many, many, many little failures.

While telling your players that “failure is not an option” might be a useful tactic for inspiring exceptional effort, it also dangerously sends the wrong signal. True, no one should choose to fail, but trying avoid a mistake usually leads to… mistakes. In those “we must not fail” situations, what usually takes over is a culture of ever-growing fear. I did mentioned in a recent post, Tiger on a Tightrope, injecting fear is sometimes required for any program. However, just as is the case with assertiveness, the key is balancing the forces of success and failure. The objective should never be to move so far in one direction as to over-shadow the necessary opposite.

I have listed 5 ways you can begin to balance the success paradox:
1.  Good Coaches realize everyone makes mistakes
2.  Good Coaches take responsibility for their mistakes
3.  Good Coaches accept failures by failing fast and moving on
4.  Good Coaches don’t make the same mistake twice
5.  Good coaches create a method to monitor and learn from their mistakes

A vital difference between a good coach and a wayward one is that good coaches consider it their responsibility to admit and learn from failures, setbacks, and mistakes. They work to apply their skills and dedication to building trust. What that attitude does is creates a sense of authenticity to their coaching. On the other end of the spectrum the wayward coach tries to demand no mistakes. The players and staffs of the great coaches feel that genuine level of responsibility of the great ones and they follow that coach anywhere.

Scantling, E., & Lackey, D. (2005). Coaches Under Pressure: Four Decades of Studies. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 76(1), 25.
O’Connor, D., & Bennie, A. (2006). The Retention of Youth Sports Coaches. Change:Transformations in Education 9(1), 27-38.
Peck, S. (2010). The Cost of Pursuing Victory: A Study on the Relationship between Sportsmanship and Winning. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota).


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