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February 26, 2021 • Athletic AdministrationCoachingCross country

Preparing Your Team for Every Problem During the Season

Early in my 40-year coaching career, a colleague told me something that has proven to be true. 

He said, “If you stay in coaching very long, you will have teams that you don’t think are going to be very good, but they will shock you with how much they achieve. You will also have teams that you think are going to be great that will turn out to be mediocre.”

The former situation is always a nice surprise, a bonus for your hard work and perseverance. But what about those potentially great teams that disappoint you? What was the problem? I am reminded of Tolstoy’s famous line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same is true of successful and unsuccessful athletic teams. No doubt every coach has a unique story for what went wrong with each unsuccessful team. I know I do.

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Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Services

Nothing can prevent every problem that could sabotage a season, but there is a method that can help you prevent or overcome many of them. The ancient Stoic philosophers called it premeditatio malorum (“the premeditation of evils”). In the business world, it is called a premortem. It is essentially a meeting in which employees pretend that a new project has already been launched and has failed. At the meeting, the CEO announces, “Our project has failed miserably. Now, tell me what the problem was.” Remember, this is before the project has actually been launched. The CEO is presenting the worst-case scenario and encouraging employees to imagine what went wrong so they can address a potential problem before they ruin everything.

Gary Klein, in an article in the Harvard Business Review, says, “A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem.” Postmortems, of course, help you analyze any problem or mistake after a season so you can prevent them in the future, but they obviously can’t change the outcome of a completed season. And postmortems are easy; everyone has 20-20 hindsight. I can tell you precisely what went wrong with every team whose season performance disappointed me. But I would rather have avoided the failure in the first place. That’s what CEOs are trying to accomplish with a premortem. You can do the same with your team.

I started using premortems a few years ago and have been pleased with the results. The first one was in 2017. My 2016 high school boys’ cross country team had been one of those pleasant surprises. They achieved more than I had a right to expect, winning our sectional — the first stage of our state tournament series — by a large margin. What’s more, nearly the whole team was underclassmen. We should win again easily in 2017, right? Experience told me not to take that for granted; things could go wrong. I could imagine some of those things — in fact, could remember many from my coaching experience — but I wanted my runners to think about the possibilities. So at our organizational meeting at the beginning of the summer, I held up a fake newspaper headline that said, “BRAVES UPSET IN SECTIONAL, FAIL TO DEFEND TITLE.” Then I said, “Guys, what happened?”

I used a fake headline to try to make the failure seem real. Usually, when we contemplate possible failure, we ask, “What could happen?” But in a premortem, we ask, “What did happen?” The change in perspective is powerful, and the headline helped produce that change.

I gave each runner a piece of paper and a pencil and told them to use their imaginations to look back from the future and explain why our talented team had failed to defend its sectional title. It is important to have them record their ideas; it allows you to observe their progress and perhaps encourage them to expand their thinking. For instance, some athletes were listing only problems that could happen on the day of the meet — a runner getting disqualified, someone spraining an ankle during the race, the team going out way too fast in the first quarter-mile, etc. I praised those thoughts but prodded them to think about factors leading up to race day, even months before. That generated responses about how complacency and overconfidence could cause a lack of dedicated training in the summer, and how inadequate rest and poor nutrition could lead to injuries and illness.

They’re teenagers, so, of course, there were some humorous examples: “Tommy eats a whole pizza for breakfast and throws up during the race!” But even that idea led to a discussion about why an athlete should not experiment with diet before an important competition. One athlete offered the idea that a key runner or two could decide not to come out for the team. I’ve seen that happen. It can be devastating. We discussed the possible reasons for such a decision and what we could do to promote a vibrant camaraderie that increases the chances that everyone would want to return. 

It was a productive conversation. My athletes generated many potential problems that had not occurred to me, and we brainstormed ways to prevent or solve each one. Sometimes the problems were beyond our control. For example, key athletes can suffer injuries even if they do everything right. Solution? Someone from the JV team must be physically and mentally ready to step up and produce at the varsity level. That won’t happen if JV athletes go into the season thinking they are “just reserves” and train with that mindset instead of taking a varsity approach to their preparation.

My 2017 team avoided most problems and overcame the ones that did occur. We did repeat as sectional champions. I’m not suggesting that our premortem was solely responsible for our success — it was a talented group, and they were dedicated even before we held a premortem — but the tactic helped us prepare for the season and not take anything for granted.