In last week's blog, I discussed Jose Mourinho and how ego was affecting his management of Manchester United. I suggested that he may be entering a period of failure that he wasn't accustomed to. It is, therefore, fitting this week that I discuss failure and how in society and particular football we deal with it so inadequately. In Matthew Syed's book Black Box Thinking, he excellently articulates how it's actually from failures that we gain the most significant advances in knowledge. Using the medical profession and aviation as the focal point of the book he points to how the use of the Black Box in aviation has made flight one of the safest ways to travel. By analysing everything that happens right up to the point a plane crashes pinpoints each mistake and allows improvement for future flights. This same self-analysis doesn't occur in the healthcare profession leading to errors and deaths which are not learned from. So how does this relate to Mourinho, or in fact all of us, who at some stage or another will experience failure? Very much like our ego, it is how we control this emotion will be the defining factor in how we develop as characters.
Listen to any post-match interview with a manager/coach or player after an unfavourable result, and it will be a lesson in how not to deal with failure. Their natural instinct to find a scapegoat and willingness to blame others will see a whole host of excuses from the referee, the negative playing system the opposition employed, quality of the playing surface or in Mourinho's most infamous case where he blamed his doctor for going onto the pitch to tend to an injured player.
At this moment I think it's important for us to pause for a moment to reflect on what failure means to us and some of the emotions it conjures in our minds.
For many words such as shameful, embarrassed, disgraceful, discredited, disappointment, humiliated, mortified spring to mind. The reason for this is based on society's contradictory attitude to failure. We rarely see the positives from failing. We want to protect our reputation, so we start by defending our actions, entrenching ourselves in our beliefs, deflecting onto other people. What we see those managers/coaches and players do in public with a microphone in front of them is what many of us do when we try and justify our mistakes to ourselves and our friends - minus the microphone and hundreds of million people watching. The problem with this is that it perpetuates the problem especially when the person's ego believes it and fails to learn from their mistakes. By avoiding the truth in the short term will lead to more significant consequences in the long run.
So the perception in society is that failure is something to be avoided. When looking at the achievements of individuals, we often come across terms like 'natural' god given talent' or 'born with it'. What we fail to acknowledge - beneath the surface of success - outside our view, - is a mountain of necessary failure. This inability to accept failure is becoming a problem in our young athletes trying something new and failing results in many just giving up. Equally frustrating is when mistakes occur, the litany of excuses is an attempt at justification. The desire for perfection and achieving success in the first attempt or without much effort is creating a culture of a 'fear of failure'.
It is this fear of failure that leads to what is known as Self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is a situation where the athlete ends up sabotaging their performance at a point when things get difficult or more effort is needed than previously experienced. In the player's case, it may be not attending or trying in training or games. For others, they start drinking or socialising more. One only has to speak to any young player released from a professional club the reasons for not making it as a footballer are often 'I got injured', 'the coach didn't like me' or 'I was homesick'. Rarely will you hear it was because the player just wasn't good enough or they didn't work hard enough? Admitting these minor failings rather than admit to the primary failure that they weren't good enough to be a professional footballer.
So how do we change this attitude towards failure? There are two essential approaches I feel we as coaches can do. Firstly, It is imperative that we redefine failure for our athletes. Failure isn't an instinct. We are not born with a fear of failure. If an infant had a fear of failure, they would never learn to walk. Therefore it is possible to create a culture where we take responsibility for our actions. Accept that we failed but most importantly we will endeavour to not make that mistake again. If we want to create a culture where our athletes are free to make mistakes and not be punished or blamed then it is vital that we accept this and use it to help them develop. We saw evidence of this Pep Guardiola first season at Manchester City when he wouldn't criticise his defence for playing out from the goalkeeper. To do so would create a fear of failure and prevent the team from playing the style of football we have accustomed to with teams under Peps guidance.
Secondly, realising the levels that exist in football. Sometimes we can get carried away by the performance of our star player to the point of lavishing them with praise. The terminology we use will dictate the type of mindset and culture we cultivate. As mentioned earlier in the article, terms like 'talented' and 'natural' conjure a mentality that their ability doesn't require hard work and is somehow a gift from God. A poor mindset will become problematic when they move up a level and come up against better players. For some players, this is going from under 10s to under 12s but for many, the first time they have to deal with failure is when they leave their local team and join a national league team and compete against the best young players in the region or country. The ability to deal with not being the best player on the pitch and having to work harder on their game is a transition a lot of young players find too challenging to make. Learning is a process that often requires failure so we can achieve the most benefits. The earlier in life we realise this, the better understanding of failure we will have and help improve our lives both on and off the football pitch.
Next week I will develop this idea of Mindset by looking at the book 'Mindset. The new psychology of success' by Carol Dweck.