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On Top of The Game!

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Have you ever been up close to watch the world’s greatest skiers race down a mountain or one of the top golfers on the 18th green at the Masters Golf Tournament? Maybe you’ve sat in the front row at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the cars stream by at 200 miles per hour? The magnitude of forces in play almost stops your heart. Professional drivers are putting everything into the race—their expert driving, precision training and their lives—to capture the checkered flag.

Witnessing the perfection of these athletes’ craft elicits a reaction similar to that of the awe experienced at the raceway.
What do these moments with professional athletes have in common? Do they win all the time or just some of the time because of personal struggles or equipment failures?
When I worked as an automotive engineer, I was part of a team that created and tested cars that met customer needs and wants. Twenty years later, I’m still doing the same thing, but the product has changed. It’s no longer cars, it’s people—athletes, to be exact.
Building and launching a new car required a team of people and lots of planning, timing and coordination. In developing a car, things go wrong. Ideas and methods don’t always work the way you plan. Sometimes, things went right that we really never planned for, either. In the midst of all the best planning we did, sometimes the outcome came down to dumb luck.
The same is true in developing an athlete and a team. There’s only one major difference from my perspective, however: what occurs following failure.
The F word
In the world of mechanical systems, we talk openly about failure. We plan for failure. We expect failure and come up with contingency plans. We even give failure a numeric value so we understand the impact of that failure on the rest of the system and can prioritize its importance.
This has not always been the case in athletics, however. Failure is not always discussed, and in some sports circles, it’s almost considered a dirty word. Failure carries with it many raw emotions, and most center on career-ending consequences. It is for this exact reason that we must understand failure in the world of athletics.
Why? Anything that evokes such powerful thoughts and emotions for so many people will be feared. If there is fear, there is less than maximum performance. If engineers feared the speed of the Dodge Viper (0 to 60 mph in less than three seconds and a top speed of 260 mph), for example, they would have never provided 645 horsepower. Failure was an option and they planned for it, prioritized it and kept going.
Of course, people are not machines, but like machines, people are predictable in many ways. When things go wrong, adjustments must be made. This would be similar to the process control area of the failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) chart. What would we do to change a batter’s swing, a swimmer’s stroke or a football player’s speed? Small adjustments that, if not made, could lead to failure.
Here’s the problem: Because athletes have their own internal computers (the brain), new adjustment programs don’t always run smoothly. A message is sent back to the brain that says, "I don’t trust this, this feels wrong," or "This is going to take forever," or "I can’t do it this way." The brain is confused, and it takes much longer for the new adjustment to be seen. For some athletes, it’s never seen.
What if we could see this potential delay and disruption before it happens? If there was a way to see how the athlete processes the new adjustment before teaching an adjusted swing, swimming stroke or basketball move to him or her, could we better plan how much time it might take him or her to learn? Could we teach adjustments better? Wouldn’t this be a form of potential failure planning?
Athletes learning new skills
Higher Standards Academy (HSA) LLC teaches international professional athletes new skills. In research with hundreds of athletes learning new skills, it was apparent some learned faster and better than others. This doesn’t seem like new groundbreaking information, but rather just common sense.
After watching hundreds of athletes respond differently to new information and performance expectations, however, it became apparent there was something more going on regarding adjustment: Some athletes were bold and relaxed, while others were shy or anxious.
Education levels didn’t seem to be the deciding factor. Instead, there was a cognitive adjustment to the new task and a corresponding action pattern. HSA developed a test to see whether it could uncover how athletes cognitively react to tests of skill adjustments in a controlled environment. The test needed to be challenging, strategy based and emotion evoking. The emotion should be triggered by failure.
The test design was created so players could never win, but the players didn’t know that predetermined result ahead of time. Response to each failure was observed, and a scale was created to measure it. In addition, the trial times were noted, and there were many options the players could choose to get closer to "winning." These adjustments would show how fast they could change strategy.
Next, a few simple trial experiments were conducted on a handful of players to determine whether this was the right design. Interestingly, in those few players, a correlation to athletic performance was observed. The way the players responded to the tests was similar to how they responded on the field or on the court, as verified by their coaches. There seemed to be something to this.
So HSA went to the University of Notre Dame and enlisted a sports psychology expert to help create test protocols, interpret data and determine further test parameters. The original test design and protocol were tweaked with every trial, and athlete results were provided to coaches for feedback. The coaches were given a scale to help determine the accuracy of the findings.
Remarkably, the tests were 85 to 90% accurate all of the time. Some seasoned coaches were amazed, saying they couldn’t believe how the tests could so accurately describe a player’s ability to make adjustments and rebound from failures without ever having seen the athlete actually play.
Adjustment patterns
It became clear there were 13 different performance adjustment patterns into which players consistently fell. These patterns are based on the scores of the metrics used on the test. Some athletes first performed better—then worsened, others made no change, and others continually improved.
Together with the HSA test team, four of those 13 patterns were determined to be most desirable. The four categories were the ones that showed positive or faster adjustment to new skills and strategic thinking. Of all the players tested, only 25% fell into those four categories. The rest fell into nondesirable or neutral performance adjustment patterns.
For the patterns that weren’t as desirable or neutral, the HSA test team determined strategies to help players and coaches learn intervention strategies. For a player who gives up quickly after failure (14% of all players), for example, the strategy is to build in more frequent activities that will garner smaller wins—either by the player alone or with a coach.
These interventions are currently being proven in the field and could lead to more testing, varied training techniques and advancements in sports psychology. The more we know how a player adjusts performance early on, the more we can help players adjust quicker, learn faster and help coaches work smarter.
Interestingly, the main premise of this testing tool has its roots in FMEA. All of the tests were based on failing and how athletes made strategic adjustments after the failure. Isn’t this what we do in the quality profession as part of a process FMEA?
In sports, there really isn’t a design FMEA per se. Perhaps the only trace of this is in fixing a player’s mechanics or designing plays. Looking at what happens if fixing a player’s faulty mechanics or designing plays doesn’t work, however, isn’t always documented or discussed with clear effects or analysis.
Of course, what we are talking about is behavioral change. How do we react to a negative stimuli and a failed action? Do we try something new the next time? Do we work faster or slower? How do we make the desired outcome a possibility?
HSA saw that everyone does this differently and for many different reasons. Some are personality based and some are learned, for example, but the one interesting factor is that the reaction and learning is consistent and predictable. How an athlete attacks a new skill is the same as how the athlete will generally attack another. It is part of who the player is. Our unconscious approach to a new task is fairly consistent, which is why the tests on players were so accurate.
Never before have researchers completely tested and measured how athletes cognitively adjust to new skills. A database search for sport and psychological tests of failure response and performance adjustment came up empty. These groundbreaking results can provide a window into our own thresholds for task-based learning. New athletic skills are task based and therefore fall into this category.
With knowledge of our adjustment patterns, we can make different choices in how we approach skills and game situations. Every game is a new task-based activity, and adjustment patterns would definitely be in play.
Beyond sports
If adjustment patterns and new task approach is part of an athlete’s DNA, could this be relevant for those performing tasks outside of sports? How about in corporate environments? Businesses have always hired people based on many things, and this new test may prove to be invaluable in developing or hiring people. If we know how we respond to new tasks, we can set ourselves up to be more successful.
When this test was given to a small trial group of successful business owners, we found a new pattern emerged. Because business owners generally make big decisions daily, this test showed that adjustment isn’t as important after the first action or decision is made. This isn’t to say that the decisions are made hastily; it just means that post-decision adjustment isn’t immediately part of new task thinking.
Imagine understanding adjustment patterns for first-time parents or those trying a new weight-loss technique. What about airline pilots or surgeons who regularly face pressure-packed situations. Performance adjustment patterns could have great influence on quality of life, or life and death itself.
Planning and strategies
How do the "greats" get to be so great? By failure and making adjustments, adopting new strategies after failure, and learning what to do and what not to do. NBA basketball legend Michael Jordan failed many times. He knows that failure is a great teacher. You can bet he also knows himself and the way he reacts to failure. He is in touch with his adjustment strategies.
The greats don’t know their pattern numbers, but they do know themselves in ways that most nonathletes don’t. This comes from years and years of pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits.
For an athlete, failure happens by not making adjustments or not making the right adjustments. The logic behind the FMEA, coupled with the new HSA test, is giving the world of sports the help it needs in adjustment insight and planning. Who knows? Maybe this can help put an end to the taboo F word in athletics.


Article Reference: Quality Progress

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