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The Critical Role of Vulnerability in Athletics

The Critical Role of Vulnerability in Athletics

Learning to be vulnerable can be really effective for athletic teams, both short- and long-term. And the players love it.

“Get busy living, or get busy dying.” – Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption

When Jeff explains our team-building program for athletic teams, the coach often looks at Jeff like he has three heads, because it is the opposite of what coaches have come to expect from athletic team-building programs, which are usually all about toughness—breaking boards with bare hands or becoming a “warrior” of some type.

Our program includes working on emotional skills such as vulnerability and empathy—not typical fare for athletes. But we argue that our program has the best chance of creating measurable, lasting change that translates into better play on game day—and happier, less anxious kids overall. And the players love it. Why? Because this program gives them two things they crave: connection and confidence.

The Outcome Fever Problem

We’ve talked a lot about Outcome Fever, and that’s a big part of what’s going on with many athletes at all levels of play—actually, many kids, period. Put simply, Outcome Fever is judging a person by their accomplishments instead of who they are. This applies to both judging other people and judging yourself—many kids with Outcome Fever, fueled by their phones and social media, judge themselves solely on their accomplishments. And they are miserable as a result. And, because they really haven’t experienced anything different, they often don’t understand why they are miserable.

Looking at things through the Outcome Fever lens, in this day of the “24-hour Judgment Cycle,” as our friend Ryan Brown, of Bishop Guertin High School, likes to put it, and cancel culture, there potentially are real social consequences from peers for kids who fail at something. Additionally, because of many cultural factors (read all about them in our free booklet, Raising Children in the Digital Age), many parents have Outcome Fever, which results in kids feeling that their parents’ love is conditional: that they will only be loved if they accomplish a lot and are “successful.” Finally, many coaches feel under a lot of pressure to win and have succumbed to Outcome Fever themselves, which means they are putting pressure on their players that winning is the only thing about sports that is important.

So kids get the message from all sides that if you fail in the Outcome Fever culture, then that means that you stink as a person. And if you tried your best and failed, that’s even worse, because you have no excuse as to why you stink. Better to not put yourself out there: just don’t try beyond the minimum needed to complete a task and stay under the radar.

As a result, many kids today are afraid to try, because giving your all is a form of vulnerability. So, today, many, many kids are afraid of giving their all, which is the antithesis of what athletics stand for.

While fear of failure and Outcome Fever are strategies that both kids and adults have adopted in order to survive emotionally in this digital culture we’ve created, using this type of emotional coping mechanism is no way to live your life. And it’s a big part of why so many kids today are stressed, anxious, and depressed. And, just to be clear, it started years before COVID.

The Joy of Trying

If you never really try, you may not fail, but you will never have the satisfaction that only comes from striving, strife, and surmounting obstacles, whether external or internal, and truly succeeding, thus experiencing what we call the 6I’s—Imagination, Independence, Intestinal fortitude, Intimacy, and Integrity, which leads to Identity—who we are, our character. And with those 6I’s come the full gamut of emotions we humans have, from disappointment to triumph. And yes—failure.

Also, there is a closeness—an intimacy, if you will—that comes from collective striving. That intimacy is really what makes a “team.” So without vulnerability there is no team.

There is also no empathy. Empathy is the opposite of selfishness. So if your players are incapable of being vulnerable by sharing their journeys—at least their athletic journeys, but often aspects of their personal journeys as well—they can’t work together as a team. Instead, it is every player for themselves, and that almost never wins games, and surely not the Game of Life. And the players and coaches are miserable.

People are afraid to be vulnerable, so there is miscommunication and misunderstanding, and resentment flourishes. That, too, is the antithesis of team.

The result is players experience a combination of stress and a lack of connection. And since it’s every person for themselves and stress is “the great isolator,” it’s amazing how many kids bear these very heavy burdens alone.

The upshot is many children today miss emotional “lessons”—such as how to fail and be vulnerable—crucial to normal child development and so lack emotional skills that previous generations (we!) used to learn by osmosis. This is a primary cause of much of the anxiety we see in kids today. These problems were present before COVID, but COVID made it worse.

Fortunately, children today are hard-wired for connection and growth the same way they have always been. In fact, they crave these things. So we can remedially teach these emotional skills and thus dramatically improve the mental health of many of today’s kids. And that’s what we do with the teams with whom we work.

The Benefits of Being Vulnerable

Our team-building teaches kids that being vulnerable isn’t always dangerous—in fact, it is often life-giving and key to success. We teach kids how to connect. We teach coaches how to communicate. Jeff gets them all to share their journeys—whatever part of their athletic or life burden they are comfortable sharing. And, for so many kids, being vulnerable about their journeys feels like letting go of that burden, and they feel much better. For the teammates, enlightenment causes empathy to take root. The kids relax and play with more joy—and play better.

And the coaches can’t just be observers—they have to be vulnerable, too. Many coaches have Outcome Fever (OF)—they are too worried about winning. They are transferring OF to their kids, who are probably also getting OF from their parents and, as a result, end up with it themselves.

Coaches have to get back in touch with why they got into coaching in the first place: they love kids. Ironically, if they get back to “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” and get their kids to relax, they win more games.

Kids today are starved for connection. It makes such a difference if they know who their coach really is. What makes them tick. Their journey. Who they are and not just their accomplishments. Why they love the game and what their hopes, adversities, and aspirations are. It’s wonderful to watch the connections grow when the coach is able to be vulnerable.

How Parents Can Help

Parents have a big role to play, too. They need to change their perspective and cure themselves of Outcome Fever. For instance, they need to take Mike Metheny’s advice and be quiet during games and on the way home tell their kids “that you enjoyed watching them and you hope that they had fun.” They need to butt out and let the coach critique the childrens’ play. They need to stop criticizing and confronting the coaching staff, refs, opponents, and other players.

They need to take Julie Lythcott-Haims’ advice and don’t go to every practice or even every game so their kids can be themselves. Parents need to ask themselves: did they act the same with their peers when their parents were watching as when they were alone with their friends? Doesn’t everyone like to tell other people about things they did? Parents need to give their kids the same pleasures by not being at practice. And then having everyone (themselves included) turn phones off during dinner to hear from their child the uninterrupted report of how things went.

And parents need to train themselves to focus on their child’s character strengths and not their accomplishments.

Children start playing their sport of choice for fun, not for their résumé. They will be more successful if they have fun. Sports shouldn’t be tied to outcomes, such as a college scholarship. Parents need to explain that mistakes and failure are a normal part of life and can teach us a lot. Failure is not bad—in fact, it’s good. Parents should model what turning failure into success really looks like.

This goes for any kid, not just athletes.

So Jeff’s work is the opposite of “get tough” team-building programs. Learning to be vulnerable is just one part of the program, which works to get at the many emotional roots of struggling teams and players. But learning to be vulnerable can be really effective at building teams, both short- and long-term. And the kids love it.