Low hanging fruit & mission critical failure

“Low hanging fruit” and “mission critical failures” – two phrases I find myself coming back to more and more when I’m working with athletes in the search for optimal performance. They act as a reminder to myself to help manage the flow of information from coach to athlete and to help me direct my interventions to the most appropriate areas and at the most appropriate times

Was it always so?

In short, no!

When I first started coaching tennis as a profession, some 20 years ago, I was renowned for being a good talker (many would say I still am). I would commentate my way through sessions, constantly directing the performance of the athletes like a traffic cop directing the flow of traffic at rush hour. No player was ever in doubt as to what they had to do at any given time.

The players I worked with improved relatively quickly, with many being selected for representative teams in their clubs, counties or regions and being identified as "talented" by NGB identification programmes (more of my take on "talent" here). As exciting as this was for a new on the scene coach, I started to notice that their performances in competition weren't quite matching up to their abilities in practice. So what was going on?

For those who are less familiar with the world of competitive tennis, coaching is not allowed whilst the match is taking place and the player can be docked points or even disqualified if they are deemed to be receiving outside information. The WTA tour has now introduced coaching timeouts in certain events and historically some coach/player teams have used hand signals and pre-determined gestures to sneak coaching under the noses of the umpires, but coaching is still essentially illegal in the sport.

Which means that as soon as a player crosses the court boundary, they are on their own. They have to make their own decisions tactically, make their own changes technically, respond to their own needs physically and manage their own thoughts and emotions. There is no coach to direct the traffic.

The players I was working with weren't doing any of these things, at least not particularly well - they weren't adaptable. I needed to make some changes to my ways of working to help facilitate this transition, especially during competition blocks.

In short I changed my coaching style and delivery  - my goal now is to talk less in sessions than the athlete does, being curious, asking questions, facilitating, guiding and creating problems for the athletes to solve  – this way of working leads (both in my own opinion and backed up by coaching research) to more robust, long term skill acquisition. You can read more about the types of changes I made here.

Low hanging fruit

That being said, it doesn't mean there isn't a place for directive coaching and for me this is where the “low hanging fruit” theory comes into play. 

What does that mean –  “low hanging fruit” is a quick performance win, a piece of fruit that can be picked with minimal effort for maximal gain. Something whereby a quick intervention could make a big impact in a short time frame. It is directive and to the point - a "do this" moment from the coach to the athlete which in the heat of battle (or in tennis in the pre-heat of battle) could give the athlete that 1% advantage they need.

My "rule" is to only be directive when there is "low hanging fruit" and only when the situation warrants it (usually in a competitive phase of the cycle). It may not lead to robust behaviour change, but a quick reminder of a key word or phrase during competition can make all the difference.

An example - in training a tennis player is struggling with their 2nd serve, it is floating long and when it does go in it sits up begging to be hit for a winner. We might discuss what the players wants from the serve, create some situations whereby they have to make the ball react differently by using targets or obstacles. Over time the athlete might come to the conclusion they need more racquet speed to produce enough spin to get the ball to react effectively off the court surface. The process takes time, but behaviour change is developed and ingrained with the athlete at the centre of the process.

In competition we notice the same problem happening, ideally we would repeat the training process as we know it is in the athletes best long term learning interest, but we also know they want to/need to perform in the very near future. A quick, direct intervention - for example "racquet speed on 2nd serve" - and we can reset the behaviour and gain the performance advantage again.

The idea of picking the "low hanging fruit" acts as a guide to the most appropriate time for direct intervention, but should we pick the strong fruit or the weak fruit?

Mission critical failure

Which brings us onto a “mission critical failure”. As a general rule i believe in the principal of turning strengths into “super-strengths” and will often work with athletes to identify their key strengths and how we can maximise them for performance gain. We will largely leave non-strengths be, unless they constitute a “mission critical failure” – in other words a weakness that is so pronounced that it will likely lead to the downfall of the performance.

Should such an area be identified we will work together (coach and athlete - with the athlete at the centre of the process) to bring this up to a level where it is robust enough and then continue searching for performance gains in the strengths. As Dr Mark Bawden Ph.D says:

If you find things that make you different and make them super strengths then you can see people make leaps in performance. Super strengths are the parts of the game in which someone could potentially be the best in the world.

The is some research in executive coaching as well as sports coaching that this emerging concept (I say emerging as coaches usually have a “mr fix-it mentality – see a problem, fix it, repeat) is incredibly effective in producing confident, effective, robust human beings.

It is also much more engaging for the athlete. Imagine turning up for training day after day to be told "right, were are going to hit lots of backhands today because that's your weakness and everyone will exploit it" - wouldn't you rather hear "right, your forehand is looking great, but we are going to make it a world class shot that everyone will be scared of". I know which would excite me more!

That is not to say that weaknesses should be ignored, far from it. Assess the weakness in the context of the overall objective, for example if the objective is to win a gold medal at an Olympic or Paralympic games then the level of the weakness will need to be assessed relative to the level of competition.

A tennis player might have a backhand that won't win them many points, but also won't lose them many through errors and a forehand that could win points with big hitting. You could choose to develop the backhand into a shot that could hit some winners too, but then you could build that forehand into a super-strength that strikes fear into the hearts of the opposition.

However, if the player has a backhand that will break down under pressure at the top level, whereby the opponent could target that side of the court and simply wait for the error to come with no pressure, then it would be sensible to develop that shot - at least to the point where it no longer threatens "the mission".

So What?

I find that these little phrases help keep me grounded in what I am trying to achieve with the athletes and clients I work with. Like a lot of coaches I like to share my knowledge with people (often as many people as possible and whether they asked for it or not), so these two phrases act as a reminder that I am much more effective when I choose the right moment to impart the knowledge I have and allow the athlete to self-organise and self-discover the rest of the time. 

What phrases do you use to inform your coaching practice - please share in the comments below...