Lessons From the Best: Gold Medal Strategies for Schools

What can the ricochet of an elusively aimed volleyball teach us about effective innovation in schools?

Plenty. How an elite group of athletes and coaches deal with new ideas, growth mindset, organizational vision, leadership, uncertainty, and stress is a near-perfect analogue for other team-based groups, including schools and school districts. Fortunately, I have a window into one such analogue, and she was home for Christmas.

USA Volleybal coach and playing legend Karch Kiraly

USA Volleyball coach and playing legend Karch Kiraly

Our daughter, Cassidy, was a two-time first team All American volleyball player and All American scholar athlete at Stanford, and for the last four years she has had the nearly unbelievable honor of playing as a member of the U.S. Women’s National team. While she is not the tallest or strongest hitter, she is known as one of the most versatile all-around players in the world, and one of the most cerebral students of the game. As such she has found an incredible connection with two of the coaches leading the team on its four-year quest to win a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics: head coach Karch Kiraly and legendary performance psychologist Michael Gervais. Kiraly is widely viewed as the best player in the history of the sport. As a coach, Cass says it is like “combining John Wooden with Michael Jordan” in one. Gervais is most widely known in the sports world for his work with the Seattle Seahawks and his Finding Mastery podcasts.

What are some of the keys to success that will directly translate from Team USA to your school?

  1.  One Vision: Cass says that the team formed a simple goal after the London Olympics, at which they were probably the best team but lost to Brazil in the gold medal match. “Our goal is to win the Olympic gold medal. Period. Everything every one of us does every day is aimed at achieving that goal.” It reminds me of the simple statement that guides the revolutionary and highly successful Pixar movie studio: “We won’t produce a movie that is not great.”
USA Volleyball team member Cassidy Lichtman

USA Volleyball team member Cassidy Lichtman

What if every member of your school team understood the goal of your school in such simple terms? My experience visiting and working with well over 100 schools and districts and thousands of educators is that this is rare. Schools have mission statements, statements of philosophy and strategic plans which are rarely articulated well by most stakeholders.  I am urging school groups to bridge this gap with a statement of vision directly focused on great learning. I call such a statement a North Star, which is what Team USA has. Their Olympic gold medal North Star guides everything that they do.

IMG_12542.  Daily Practice: From the moment the coaches and team gathered after the London games in 2012,  Coach Kiraly set out one guiding question according to Cass: “’If anyone comes into the gym today, what do you want them to see?’ We would want that visitor to walk out with a clear understanding of how we are going to achieve our goal. Those daily practices include treating everyone in the gym as family; learning from every mistake and improving by what we learn; and having fun. We all agreed on what it would take for us to achieve our goal; every day we hold ourselves accountable to that agreement.”

Do you have this kind of collaborative agreement on daily practice at your school? Can each member of the team trace back “why we do what we do” to a common North Star? Can each member of the team articulate what daily practices are most important to them and their students in terms of achieving your school vision of great learning? These are the kind of questions upon which we build a solid foundation of shared greatness.

3.  Embracing Change: Team USA is comprised of some of the most elite players on the planet. They are very, very good at what they do. Yet one of the key mantras in the gym, Cass says, is that “We all have to change what we do. We are constantly making adjustments to what we do as individuals and as a team, and we often have to get worse before we get better. That is just the nature of change.” It should come as no surprise that Kiraly, Gervais, the other coaches, and now the team are well attuned to Carol Dweck’s teachings on growth mindset!

Does your school team see change as a burden or a blessing? Do your “best” teachers model this kind of dynamism in how they approach their work, or are they the “best” because they teach the same material in the same way every year in order to achieve a record of high test scores? Is your team willing and prepared to accept “doing worse before we do better”, and support it visibly and vocally?

imgres-14.  Control What We Can: With such a simple goal, Team USA should be able to measure success in August of 2016 at the gold medal match in Rio. But is that their real measure of success? Cass says that one of the key lessons she has learned from Kiraly is that they will succeed if “We do the best we can in every area that we can control. We might play the best match of our lives on any given day, and still lose, because we can’t control everything that the other team does. We unpack what it is that we can and can’t control and are constantly improving on the things we can control.”

Schools face a mountain range of steep obstacles; we have control over some and not over others. I am currently working with a public district where teachers are overwhelmingly frustrated with state requirements on testing and evaluation. But they also have a cornucopia of ideas about how to improve education in ways that are not constrained by those state requirements. I work with private schools with enrollment challenges due to competition from public, charter, and other private schools. That competition is not going away. At these schools we spend a lot of time working on “what we can do best that is within our control.”

5. Nurturing Change. Other than learning the lessons of team greatness, why is Cass still in the Team USA gym? Why does she still have a shot at making the small subset of this ridiculously elite group that goes to Rio next summer? There are a lot of reasons, but one is that she does a couple of things better than almost any other player in the world. One is receiving nasty serves from the other team and setting up her team to make a crucial point. The toughest serve in women’s volleyball is not the heavy 50 mile-per-hour top spin bomb. It is the floating knuckle ball that can move an unpredictable few feet the moment before it hits the receiver’s arms. Like Tony Gwynn who rarely got fooled by a curve ball, Cass is world class at making those last millisecond adjustments, and late in a game sometimes, the coaches want someone to jump off the bench cold, and make a play.

images-1But in practice, as in games, even the best in the world make mistakes in order to get better. Great coach-leaders nurture the mindset that encourages, demands, and rewards that constant improvement. “If I shank a ball”, Cass says, “when I KNOW I am doing the right thing, Karch acknowledges me for doing it right. The outcome that time was not what either of us wanted, but we know that if we do the right things every day, we WILL get better, and we have done everything we can to meet our goal.”

Innovation is about changing what we do to enhance the value of the organization. For Team USA, that has meant taking a team that has been among the elite in the world for decades, and changing their approach to the game, to each other, to their collective vision, and, perhaps most importantly, to themselves. Some great players, like some great educators, rise to this challenge. As educator-leaders, we want to create the conditions that empower those around us to rise.

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