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The ELM Tree of Mastery
From the book: “The Double-GOAL COACH” by Jim Thompson
The scoreboard orientation focuses on results, comparisons with others, and avoiding mistakes, the concept of mastery is concerned with effort, learning and improvement, and how we respond to mistakes. To help coaches, parents and players learn and remember the key elements of mastery The Positive Coaching Alliance has developed a memory aid: they say that the Tree of Mastery is an ELM tree, where E is for Effort, L is for Learning, and M is for how we respond to Mistakes.
Whereas the scoreboard orientation focuses on results, mastery is about effort. Did I try as hard as I could? Did we give it everything we had?
Every coach wants players to try hard. This is not exactly a news flash. But there is some subtlety here that is addressed later. All coaches say they value effort, but man—perhaps most—is distracted from reinforcing effort by the lure of the scoreboard. When effort results in winning on the scoreboard, coaches (and fans) tend to reinforce it, but a great effort that “fails” is often ignored.
Whereas the scoreboard orientation focuses on comparison with others, mastery is about learning and continuous improvement. It doesn’t matter as much where you start as how much you improve. This can be a tremendous relief because you simply can’t control whether you are better than someone else. But you can control whether you learn something and improve. I have some firsthand experience with the power that comes from focusing on learning rather than comparisons with others.
When I was a terrified first-year student in my financial accounting class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, I sat next to students who had worked for several years on Wall Street. One student in the class was a certified public accountant! I had never taken an accounting class in my life. There was no way I could get the same grad as my classmates regardless of how hard I worked.
I had always been one of the best students in classes and I was not happy about the feeling so stupid all the time. My anxiety increased to the point that I began to experience physical symptoms. One morning in the shower, as I was getting ready to go to my 8 a.m. accounting class, I became paralyzed. I couldn’t move. I yelled downstairs to my wife, Sandra, who came up and helped me hobble out of the shower and over to the bed.
After a few minutes, I was able to get dressed and limp down to the car so that Sandra could drive me to class. I was unable to absorb any of the accounting material covered in class, but I made it through the two hours. I was only a few days later that I realized my physical problems were the result of stress. And the stress came from my anxiety at being unable to compete successfully the way I had always been able to do before.
Somehow I made it through the quarter, and when I went home to North Dakota and Minnesota over Christmas vacation, I came to a stunning conclusion: I learned an amazing amount in a short period of time. In virtually every conversation I had with old friends, I had something new to say that I hadn’t known before.
My orientation shifted away from comparing myself with my better-prepared classmates to comparing Jim-now to Jim-before. And Jim-now knew a lot more than Jim-before. When I realized how much I had learned, I became highly motivated to work even harder to learn even more during the rest of my time in business school, even though I might never know as much as my classmates because of their head starts.
I spent the vacation studying cost accounting with a self-study guide. When I went into my first cost accounting class the next quarter, I was confident I was going to do okay, and I did. My reorientation away from the scoreboard to the ELM Tree did three things: (1) I began to enjoy business school much more: (2) I learned more because I didn’t spend so much time worrying about whether I was going to flunk out; and (3) I got better grades. (I did better on the scoreboard!) By the way, effort often pays off in the real world. When I attended my first cost accounting class the next semester, the professor called me aside after class. She told me that she really should have given me a failing grade the previous semester, but “You attended every class, you asked lots of questions and you were trying so hard, I just didn’t have the heart to flunk you.” To which I said, “Thank you!”
In a mastery environment, mistakes are not dreaded. Mistakes are seen as an inevitable part of the improvement process. You simply can’t learn new skills or behaviors that have any degree of complexity without making mistakes along the way.
The way to maximize your learning is to jump into the new material or skill you are trying to master without worrying about making mistakes, or at least not letting the fear stop you. UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist used the term “leaper” as a compliment. She says she wants leapers on her team-people who are going to embrace the unknown and see tough situations as a challenge.
This is reminiscent of former UCLA Basketball coach John Wooden, winner of 10 NCAA titles in 12 years. He said, “The team that makes the most mistakes will probably win…the doer makes mistakes, and I wanted doers on my team—players who made things happen.”
Too many of us have the image in our heads of students as teacups passively waiting for the teach to fill them up with knowledge. But this is as far off the mark as it can be.
Learning is an active process. It’s not a passive reaction. Learning happens when people are engaged and actively seeking. And the thing that most makes for passivity is fear of making mistakes. So by explicitly making it okay to make a mistake, coaches create a mastery climate for their teams and do the single most important thing to turn passive teacups into active leapers who can’t wait to tackle the challenge of learning.
The Central Advantage of Mastery:
A focus on mastery tends to decrease anxiety and increase self-confidence. When athletes experience less anxiety, they tend to experience more joy in sports, and when self-confidence increases, some very good things happen.
Albert Bandura, Stanford University psychologist and member of PCA’s National Advisory Committee, had demonstrated with many years of research the positive impact of increased “self-efficacy,” which is an academic term for what we might think of as situation-specific self-confidence. When a person’s self-confidence increases, he or she tends to work harder and stick to a task longer.
This is of earth-shattering importance to coaches. Think about it. IF you can increase your team’s self-confidence, your players will work harder and practice longer, often on their own. Let’s say your team and another are evenly matched in terms of talent at the beginning of the season. The other coach focuses relentlessly on the scoreboard while you encourage your players to concentrate on mastery. The players on the other team are going to experience increased anxiety while yours gain increased self-confidence as the season progresses. Your kids are going to work harder in practice and are more likely to stick to learning a difficult new skill more tenaciously than the kids on the other team. Over the course of the season, this should translate into more wins for your team.
Of course, rarely do you find two teams that are exactly equal in terms of talent. But the research is clear: if you focus on mastery, your players are going to get better faster, because they will tend to work harder and stick to the task longer than if your focus on the scoreboard. Also, they’re wasting less precious energy being anxious.
So the irony is that by focusing away from the scoreboard toward mastery, you are more likely to do well on the scoreboard!
Mastery and the Scoreboard:
Now, let me be clear—I am not saying that you should banish the scoreboard. Your athletes are perfectly capable of thinking about the scoreboard on their own without any help from the coach. People almost always want to win in the way that the rules of the game provide for. So the issue isn’t banishing the scoreboard, which probably couldn’t be done anyway. Rather, it’s to emphasize the ELM Tree alongside the natural focus that people in this society have for winning on the scoreboard.
Coaches who emphasize mastery and de-emphasize the scoreboard can help their athletes in two ways: athletes will be less likely to “choke” in a pressure situation, and they will recover faster when their confidence is rocked by a bad performance or the emergence of a powerful new competitor. Joan Duda notes that a mastery focus provides athletes with greater resiliency, call it “the mortar that holds the bricks together, especially when under attack.”
The Imperceptible Lure of the Scoreboard:
As much as we may want to stress the ELM Tree rather than the scoreboard, there is often an invisible and seductive temptation to slide back to a scoreboard emphasis as the season progresses. Winning on the scoreboard often assumes a larger importance when there is more on the line.
Eric Reveno, assistant men’s basketball coach at Stanford, once asked me to speak to his coaches at the Stanford summer basketball camp. After I introduced the ELM Tree, a coach raised his hand to say that he thought the  mastery approach is great for young kids, but when you got into competition that really matters, the scoreboard is the only place to focus. While I was gathering my thoughts, Eric interjected. He said the previous year no one expected Stanford to do well and they ended up going to the Final Four. Eric realized that one reason for their success was the team had been focusing on the elements of the ELM Tree. They were making great effort, they could see themselves getting better with each game, and they didn’t worry much about mistakes.
The following year, Stanford was rated number one in the country for part of the season and the team ended up losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Eric said he thought the players had imperceptibly changed their focus from mastery to the scoreboard with the accompanying increase in anxiety.
I thought this was a perceptive insight. As coaches, we tend to lose the mastery focus as the season progresses and the games begin to mean more to us (and others around us). A team will sometimes play way over its head to get itself into a championship possibility because it is focused on mastery rather than the scoreboard. Then imperceptibly the lure of the scoreboard will suddenly shift the focus away from what got the team where it is. What brought the team to the brink of a championship goes out the window; the team tightens up, plays tentatively, and ends up competing poorly. Afterward, the coach and the players may ask, “What happened to us? Why did we play so poorly in our big chance?”
The answer often is that they stopped dancing with the one that brought them to the game. They abandoned the mastery approach that got them where they  were. They let the lure of the scoreboard lead them astray.
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