Inarguably, failure is a major part of playing sports. In baseball, failing to get a hit 7 out of every 10 times is all-star caliber. In basketball, even the greatest shooters fail to make 6 out of every 10 three-point shots. For that reason, one of the most important mental techniques to develop as an athlete is an effective routine for responding to failure in order to maintain consistent composure and focus in difficult moments.
At SportStrata, we call these unavoidable moments of failure that occur during a performance micro-failures. A micro-failure is a small incident or situation that occurs during your performance that, though not ideal, will not mean your overall failure in the performance, as long as you are able to move on and regain proper focus. By creating a “resetting routine” athletes can respond more quickly and effectively to these inevitable micro-failures so that one mistake does not become a downward spiral of distraction and underperformance. A “resetting routine” is a series of actions or thoughts that allows you to flush away or metabolize the micro-failure, and refocus on what you can do in the present moment to respond most effectively.
As a society, we are much less likely to accept and acknowledge the fact that, just like in sports, failure in healthcare is not only possible, but inevitable. The world-renowned surgeon and public health researcher, Dr. Atul Gawande, has spent years studying why certain hospitals are more successful than others.
I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Gawande speak at the commencement ceremony for my 2012 Williams College graduation. He offered an interesting and surprising conclusion to his research, saying, “I thought that the best places simply did a better job at controlling and minimizing risks—that they did a better job of preventing things from going wrong. But to my surprise, they didn’t. Their complication rates after surgery were almost the same as others. Instead, what they proved to be really great at was rescuing people when they had a complication, preventing failures from becoming a catastrophe. Scientists have given a new name to the deaths that occur in surgery after something goes wrong—whether it is an infection or some bizarre twist of the stomach. They call them a ‘Failure to Rescue.’ More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more.”
Just as in athletics, what separates the good from the great in the world of healthcare is the ability to respond effectively to complications or micro-failures! Healthcare professionals with an effective and practiced “resetting routine” are more likely to maintain composure and effectiveness when these complications occur.
Dr. Gawande argues that “this in fact may be the real story of human and societal improvement. Risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. But some have better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure. When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to “Fail to Rescue.” You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all.”
Dr. Gawande is a leader in moving these ideas beyond theory and towards action. In his article in the New Yorker, My Personal Best, he outlines how he continually looks for ways to improve his performance by using coaching to stay on top of his “game” in medicine. He argues, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.”
Mental performance coaching utilizes evidence-based skills and techniques to increase the capacity to retrieve success from failure by ensuring you are prepared to respond with an effective plan. Nowhere is this more important than in the field of healthcare.