Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Handling Success Harder than Handling Adversity

One of the wisest coaches I know, Lorenzo Romar, was asked during one of his team’s nerve-racking midseason turnarounds, “which is harder to handle adversity or success?” Lorenzo laughed and replied “well when you are drowning, most of us will fight to say alive. It’s deep within us to struggle to survive. But it is way too easy to get complacent or take your press clippings seriously. Handling success is harder.”

Lorenzo hits on a powerful reality of life. Jim Collins in his superb book Good to Great argues that the good can be the enemy of the great. Organizations get good enough to succeed in their market. Too often they plateau at that point. They are doing well, very well, but they do not become great. Paradoxically their very success saps their motive to become great.

I believe Romar’s insight captures well the motivation of teams. When a team is down or struggling, they hate it. They want to get better. A team can respond with a chip on their shoulders. They have something to prove each game, and coaches can exploit this underdog, upset-minded, prove yourself approach. No one enjoys feeling bad or failing, so coaches can exploit the desire to prove themselves better.

Competition signals very clearly when a team fails. Losing confirms that a team needs to get better if they don’t want to lose again. Continuous losing can erode a team’s confidence in itself or its coach. It leaves no doubt a team failed. It leaves do doubt that a team and players must work harder to get better.

Winning poses a very different problem. Winning reassures everyone that they are doing the right thing. The media reinforces this with praising coverage and feel good stories. The paradox of winning is that it proves what you are doing works.

Incessant improvement is hard. Looking yourself in the mirror each day and realizing you need to continue to work harder than anyone and never being satisfied is hard. Having a coach dog you to get better and constantly demand effort and improvement in small things like footwork, ball handling, position, reading defenses, is hard. It feels good to revel in your success and how good you are.

The danger in victories lies in getting complacent. It leads players to become comfortable in what they are doing. They expect to win, which can be a good thing. You want teams to be confident and even have some swagger. If confidence bcomes arrogance and leads to cocky taunting and resentful learning, a team overestimates itself or under estimate its opponents, then it can be disastrous for a player or team.

  1.   This attitude ignores the fact that every other team is working harder. In conference play where teams play multiple times, the beaten teams target the team that beat them. Winning teams become targets, so at the very time it might become complacent, other teams are working harder, nursing chips on their shoulders, plotting upsets and innovating to counter a winning team’s strengths
  2. Winning can take the edge of a player or team. When players are hungry to win, they work harder. They enter each game on an edge pushing and fighting. They play at the edge of their talent and their emotions. Winning can erode that edge because a player gets comfortable doing what they do. They believe their present or past effort is enough, and that they can call it up as needed. Each game does not become a challenge or require the dynamic self-motivation of pushing oneself to one’s best or pushing boundaries.
  3.   Winning can harm learning. Coaches can tear their hair out, if they have any left, when players begin to think they know better. Coaches need teams to adapt to each team and listen to the scout. They need the team to focus upon the keys to winning and make special efforts to push their strengths or stop the other team’s tendencies. Each game requires learning and anticipation. The problem arises when players misdiagnose why they are winning. Success lures players to believe they are winning simply because they are really good, not because they work harder and study harder and practice harder.
  4.   Winning leads to a sense of entitlement. Winning tempts players to believe all they have to do is show up. Players begin to think they deserve to win. They not only expect to win, they expect it to be handed to them. Other teams and the referees are supposed to know how good they are. They make a run or get a lead, and this should prove to the other team it is time to give up. When referees go against them, they express outsize anger, even outrage, because as winners they should not have to deal with such things as fouls or bad calls. Modern players have enough issues with entitlement and winning just compounds it. This reinforces the learning lapses.


The need to counteract these tendencies accounts for some of the mad hatter behavior of college coaches. Professional teams seldom fall prey to complacency, but 18-21 year olds succumb much easier. They have less experience, judge on much smaller samples and have lived an entitled life for along time.

Collins talks about the need for a “ferocious” approach to greatness and the need to face brutal facts and incessantly learn. To counteract the attractions of success, coaches try to demand, cajole, or terrify teams into keeping an edge. Coaches have to remind teams that anyone can beat them if they do not “show up” in the full sense of bringing their focus, talent and skill honed to its highest level. More than a few coaches handle this with relentless schedules that demand teams respond. A loss now and then can keep teams receptive to learning. Modern power ratings now reward rather than penalize this in most sports and seedings.

The best coaches lay out clear metrics that enable players to see, measure and understand their progress. The metrics define goals that focus behavior and permit players to grow incrementally and see their growth and success. The metric driven approach to coaching reaffirms success but reminds players in a clear way that they can and must always get better. Nothing stands still in life and athletics. The best response remains appreciating one’s strengths but never giving up on getting better.

I think coach Romar is right.

Ironic isn’t it that success breed failure? While Kipling reminded us they can both be "impostors," endless failure can break us. Success in any area of life can generate arrogance combined with complacency--jerk in simple terms. A great  team and leader see hrough the illusions of success to the core demands of excellence and realize the path of personal and professional growth never ends, never stops.

 The journey, not the destination.

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