The Disconsolate Winner

Posted by jlubans on October 28, 2021


“Weird” “Disappointing” “Ugly”
Those are the words used to describe a football team’s* undefeated winning season.
Why is that?
Is not a win a win? Not for everyone.
Given a roster of 100 elite athletes and a dozen highly expert coaches, sports writers and rabid fans expect much more than winning close scoring games.
“Blow-outs” are to be the norm.
Opponents are to be crushed, dominated, humiliated, etc. Anything short is almost a loss, except it’s not.
If you asked the fans and the media, they’d opine this team is “not meeting expectations” (one of the ubiquitous grades on annual corporate performance appraisals, and you, if you've been paying attention know what I think of that ineffectual tool).
Even the coaches get caught up in the grousing. Coming back from 21 points down to win a game is somehow less than a win.
“We should not have given up those early points.”
“Our defense was porous.”
“Too many missed tackles!” “Too few sacks, too few tackles-for-loss (TFLs), too few pass interceptions, too few fumble recoveries.”
Yet the team won.
Like in our workplaces – as you might expect I see similarities between work and sports - mistakes are made and one hopes lessons are learned and we all get better. Sports give us glimpses, highly personal ones, into team dynamics and these are transferable to the workplace.
For example, how will the airline, Southwest, come back after its cancellation of a thousand flights over recent weekends?
Much depends on the quality of management feedback – is it fair, is it timely, is it balanced, is it respectful? Is it honest?
The coaches, remarkably for any supervisor, say they have to coach better. Now, I admire their willingness to accept some of the responsibility, but they should not accept all of it.
If there’s an observable “flatness” to the play, how is that considered?
Does taking a day off from practice (given the long slog of a season from September to January) result in flatness?
Some writers imply that the change in weekly routine caused a letdown leading to mistakes on game day.
If the players are not fulminating on the sideline, what does that indicate? If players are not emotional – usually presented as aggressive – what does that mean?
What can a coach, or any leader, do to instill a desire to excel, to feel the urgency he, and fans and writers think players should be feeling?
Is this even a reasonable expectation?
The coaches’ mea culpas (“I need to do a better job”), if genuine, remind me of the advice a mother gave her basketball coach daughter (Gail Goestenkors):
The mother “asked her, 'Have you ever had one loss … as a coach that you didn't take responsibility for?' "No, never" responded Gail.
Her mom then said, 'Well, do you take responsibility for all the wins?'
Gail said, 'No.'
Gail concluded: “(My mother) helped me a lot to see that I wasn't really seeing the big picture.”
For the most part, this American football team’s head coach (Lincoln Riley) has been able to see some sunshine in those storm clouds.
He sees the errors but understands these are all correctible; they are mistakes made by trying too hard; they are slipups made by young players filling in for an injured veteran.
While disappointed, yet calm, the coach sees, in balance, plenty of good plays, good athleticism, and that a little bit of extra effort will result in elite play.
The four elected player-captains (team leaders) motivate by example and by honest talk.
Last week, one captain fumbled the ball, giving it to the other team. Then a few plays later he scored a touchdown.
His ability to overcome adversity showed other players that mistakes can be made by anyone – even a boss - and that success may be just around the corner.
IOW, don’t dwell on errors, work hard and it will happen. The captain was confirming the mantra of FIDO (Forget it, Drive on).
If all 100 players or workers cannot be on the same page, then how do you as a leader induce urgency? You must communicate it, but some or many will not get your message.
In large organizations, like a team of 100 players, a leader needs help in communicating urgency: captains, team leaders, star players all have translate the urgency.
In my own case, I valued our spark plugs (star performers).
They, like effective team captains, were quintessential to my leadership. Their encouraging others – who may be down, may be emotionally flat, may be unsure – helped our organization achieve great things.
ADDENDUM: Make that 9 wins to 0 losses. The team wins big on October 30, 52-21. All agree, a complete game.

*The University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma, USA

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© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

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