Monday, April 03, 2006

There Is Always An Excuse

A few months ago, I chatted separately with two captains that took their teams to the same tournament. At this tournament, it poured rain on Sat, and was nice on Sun. One of the teams did very well on Sat, but not so well on Sunday. This captain said to me "I wish it had kept raining on Sun!". The other captain said to me "We underachieved and the rain on Sat was a big part of the problem".

To me, there are several layers of problems here:

1) Teams embrace the uncontrollables- There might not be a better example of an uncontrollable than the weather, and I hear teams frequently making excuses for poor play based on the conditions. I have done it myself as well. In 2001, I captained a team that might have been the best conditioned team I have ever played with. What we lacked in talent (which was a lot), we made up for in conditioning. We went to Nats that year, and guess was REALLY windy. Well, needless to say that conditioning was not really a factor, and I found myself saying later "I think we would have run teams into the ground if it wasn't windy". Part of dealing with uncontrollables is being prepared (read: process goals). I recall hearing that in 2001 that BRU (made finals) spent time practicing their zone offense against a 8 man zone and did not allow passes over head height. This was while my team was running shuttle runs. There is a big mental part of this as well. When it is cold, rainy, and windy, I say to my girls " The team that enjoys playing in the cold, wet rain the most will have success today". So, it is a matter of being prepared, but also not letting the conditions be a mental road block for success, or, in the case of the first captain in my example, a necessity for success.

2) Play like you predict- If your team believes that it must be raining for you to have success, then you will play as such. This is really the same as the mental component that I mentioned above. When I first started working at Wellesley, I frequently heard "We're not a morning team", or "We're not a first half team". These aren't options anymore, and we have actually have the following as process goals: get to tournaments early, and warm-up well.

3) Unrealistic self-assessment- How often have you heard the following: "we finished 10th in 02, picked up some talent, finished 7th in 03 and 04, picked up some talent and would have done better in 05, but ________ (we had injuries, it was rainy/windy/sunny). At some point, the sight has to be turned on oneself and a candid self-assessment is needed. There is always an excuse for underachieving, but each of us is never the is the other guy. After years of finishing 9th at Nats, I finally realized that "maybe the team that I am capable of 'starting' on is not talented enough to make semis at Nats". A few months later, I had the opportunity to be a role player on 6TM, and we made semis that year.

4) Better goals- Every team says "we finished x last year, this year we have upgraded the talent, and we are looking forward to making noise at (sectionals, regionals, nationals)". Easy to say...hard to do. Especially without good goals (especially process goals). I have talked about goals enough in my posts, but in order to get over the hump of excuses and embracing uncontrollables, you need to set very good and detailed goals for yourself and your team.


shiv said...

well said, g. as i watch local teams struggle with even the most basic aspects of starting and developing new teams, i reflect on the fact that it's hard to follow the process goal setting and real self analysis you (dare i say "we"?) endorse. could the problem be as simple as this: it's hard to emulate things done right when you haven't seen/experienced it yourself?

gcooke said...


You are welcome on my bandwagon anytime.

I agree with your point. It is hard to know success without seeing it. That kind of example really informs the idea that you need to build up to success...step by step.

I guess a subtext to my point is that one of the things that concerned me about my specific examples is that they are established teams with vetern leadership. Many times I think these folks substitute wishful thinking for actual goals.


parinella said...

I think it's just part of the human psyche. When things go well, it's just the natural order being played out, and there is no reason to look for other explanations. When things don't go well, you can always find a few branch points in the timeline that could have led to more favorable alternative histories.

This can hurt the winning teams, too, because they don't see the flaws that put them in a position to lose, and thus go ahead doing the same thing. The team they just beat twice in a row by a point will make adjustments and might be the better team the next time.

Tarr said...

I would entirely agree with the sentiments that:

1) There are ways to prepare for "uncontrollable" events like "bad" weather or injuries.

2) It is possible to turn some weaknesses into strengths with proper preparation.

2) It's important to approach seasons, tournaments and games with realistic outcome AND process goals that are consistent with your preparation plans.

That said - you have a finite amount of time and resources to work with, and to a degree all teams have to pick their battles. Sometimes the best strategy is to say "We're going to make sure we're good at X and Y. If circumstances force us to do Z and W, we will suffer for it."

Putting it another way - consider the following "outcome matrix" from 2001. There is one controlled variable - how your team prepared. You could perpare as you did, or as BRU did. The second variable is conditions - you could have 2001 wake of a hurricane, or 2002 calm.

reality - conditioning intense, wake of a hurricane. We know the result.
fantasy "a" - conditioning intense, calm. Run to semifinals or better?
fantasy "b" - zone O preparation, wake of a hurricane. Better than reality, but by how much?
fantasy "c" - zone O preparation, calm. You prepared for your weakness, and here's your strength. We've got some lovely parting gifts for you...

Obviously, either the conditions or your preparations can fall anywhere on the spectrum between these extremes. But that said, again, you have finite resources with which to prepare. You make your choices, and you have to accept in advance that they may end up not being the best ones. This is part of the reason why process goals are so important - you can control whether you succeed at those.

gcooke said...


Good points. I can think of very few times where teams have explained things with that kind of perspective.


Also, good points. Again, like Jim, if I had a conversation with a captain in which he/she outlined things so clearly...I wouldn't have written this post.