It has been a week since the volleyball USWNT won gold at the Tokyo Olympics, I have been thinking about it and asking the Why? What? And How? Questions.
First thought is that the Olympics is a special and unique competition which demands specific and unique behavior and training from the entire team. This is the premise of the essay, and the basis for my appreciation for the work that Karch Kiraly has done over his terms as the head coach of the USWNT.
First a caveat, I have followed Karch’s coaching moves for the last nine years with interest but from afar. I have also followed the scant information that was shared with us by the broadcasters and various other sources over the years and during the Olympic coverage. My perception of the situations comes from those spotty bits of information, and my own observations and interpretations of those tidbits. I am not privy to all the decisions for the NT staff nor their thought process. I therefore acknowledge that this is an exercise in conjecture and hypothesizing, but it is a good mental exercise for me and I am sharing this as a conversation starter for anyone else who has done this exercise, as I am sure many have. In any case, my conjecture and hypothesis are no better or worse than anyone else’.
Winning the gold medal in the Olympics has been a long quest for the USA women’s, starting with the 1980 boycott team, who gave us so much hope and expectations. The intervening years have shown us how hard it is to compete on the biggest global stage with the highest level of volleyball competition. It would therefore seem be a validation of Karch’s coaching methods and decisions, but that assumption propagates the myth that only the tangible results matter in the assessment of a coach’s ability and his or her methods. The real problem is that we would not know if a different combination of players could have gotten the job done as well. Indeed, that is a moot point because there is no way to test the hypothesis.
One of the terms used by Annie
Dukes in her book Thinking in Bets
There are however, many indirect and empirical evidence that I saw which I included in my thinking about the decisions and methodologies from the NT coaching staff.
One set of evidence lies in our observation of how the team played, the way the team held together in the face of challenges, the way that the team improved their play as they advanced through the bracket.
The team was able to survive the onslaught of bad luck: the sensational rookie right-side Jordan Thompson and the starting setter Jordyn Poulter both go out with injuries just as the team is in the middle of pool play. This team steps up together: the designated backups not only steps in to bring the team a needed win, but they also excel in their own way; same with the outside hitter position, when Michelle Bartsch-Hackley struggled in either the offense or passing phase of the game, Kelsey Robinson steps in and plays up to the standards of the starters. What was mostly unnoticeable is that the rest of the team steps up in their performances doing the intangible to make the team play better.
This team performance reminds me of the term antifragile, a term coined by Nicholas Nassim Taleb. In short, antifragile is defined as the following:
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when
exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the
phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it
antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient
resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.
As laid out above, antifragile is much beyond just grit and resilience. Antifragility is much more than just surviving the challenges, it is transcending the challenges and gaining advantage over the initial situation prior to the challenge.
The phenomenon is well studied in
medicine, where for example Wolff's law describes how bones grow
stronger due to external load. Hormesis is an example of mild
antifragility, where the stressor is a poisonous substance and the antifragile
becomes better overall from a small dose of the stressor. This is different
from robustness or resilience in that the antifragile system improves with, not
withstands, stressors, where the stressors are neither too large or small. The
larger point, according to Taleb, is that depriving systems of vital stressors
is not necessarily a good thing and can be downright harmful.
Indeed, this is what I saw the team do: as the team advanced further into the bracket play, their performance improved with each challenge; the once moribund middle attack came alive during the playoffs as both Poulter and Hancock ran the middles on slides and 31’s; the dashed expectations from Thompson’s injury was revived with inspired performances from Annie Drews. More importantly, the team played more cohesively and almost all facets of the USA game came alive.
Theoretically, the quality of the opponents should increase with each match won in this kind of competition, yet this team played better as they advanced in the competition, they played with more energy and executed the game plan better, and made the winning appear easier with each succeeding step towards the gold medal.
My impression was that the team was not just playing as they knew how to play, but they were improvising, adapting, and overcoming the challenges thrown their way. They direct their considerable communal volleyball IQ towards creating better opportunities gaining advantages rather than just solving problems, they were jamming. This team played as the embodiment of the ideal team: executing out-of-system as well if not better than they were in-system. The decisions were mostly good, and when the decisions did not work out, the team left it behind them and played better for the next point. One way to characterize the team’s play is to say that the team was in a collective “flow”.
We talk about being in the “zone”, in a “flow”, or in wu-wei, but those terms apply mostly to the individual, it is rare to speak of a team being in the “flow”. It opens up in my mind the idea of a team performance while in a collective “flow”.
Indeed, we witnessed some great examples of team play during the USA matches. Everyone doing their job while also covering for their teammates intuitively when necessary. It was everyone having each other’s back. The difference however, is that this kind of selflessness happened throughout the two weeks tournament, subconsciously, consistently, unquestioningly, and in a very matter of fact manner. It was, to me, a demonstration of the very best of team play and everyone aiming for the same goal. All egos were checked at the door.
This kind of performance is rare, especially at this level of play during this level of pressure competition. We need to realize that we witnessed the living embodiment of what we all so dearly desire. A very large parts of the credit needs to go to the game plan formulated by the coaching staff, the data compiled and analyzed by the statistical staff, and the superhuman efforts put forth by the medical staff to keep the players healthy and to heal those who are injured. Indeed, team play in its deepest meaning is a matter of more than just the players playing as a team on the court, but the coordination of the interacting parts of the whole team, not just the players. This kind of effort takes an inordinate amount of coordination, effort, commitment, and singularity of vision. Of course, much of the credit should go to the head coach, but it goes much further than that, it goes to the kind of culture and ethos that surrounds the team, which reflects the vision of the head coach.
Which brings us to the most talked about aspect of the Karch Kiraly coaching legacies. It is a legacy, whether Karch likes it or not.
We have heard various bits and pieces about the kind of culture that Karch has built around the women’s national team. A more contemporary approach towards redefining the relationship between the coaches and staff who support and make things possible and the players, who willingly put themselves on the line and play. The idea isn’t really new, I have heard of college programs whose approach to culture building are similar, but to implement this idea in the Olympics where the payoff is in a two-week tournament rather than over a season is to experiment on a grand scale, with the added constraint of performing in a bubble, and rarely practice in a consistent time frame with the entire team.
My first clue that things are different came with the reports that Karch had employed a tool from corporate America, the 360 review, in his process of communicating with the players and giving them feedback from their peers. The concept is to have the person under review facing their peers, and people above and below them in the hierarchy. This is usually employed with those who are in the senior managerial positions, such as CEOs and presidents. The theory is to give them the good and the bad in a neutral environment employing neutral languages and having the reviewer laying out their case in facts. In my experience, very few people who are being reviewed react well, mainly because their egos get in the way and they react defensively to the criticism, even as they are neutral.
My first reaction to this development was: “oh, dear god, what have you done?” I don’t know how these exercises worked out, whether it helped or hurt the cause, but I had to give credit to Karch for having the courage to try the method, it gave me the clue that he was open-minded and was willing to try things that are outside of his comfort zone.
During the Olympics we heard the announcers talk about the Leadership Council that Karch implemented. Again, I have very few details, but what I have heard I liked: a player’s council is given the responsibility to make some decisions. The most salient decision involves the council deciding to bring on Sue Enquist, the former UCLA softball coach as the performance coach. I believe she was the key to establish the #12Strong motto, but more importantly, she was the one to implement the mental preparations necessary to execute that motto. This is yet another instance of having the courage to be exposed to new ideas, think critically about them and implementing them in service to executing a process towards a goal.
To me, the significant fact is that Karch willingly ceded control on various aspects of the team culture to the players, allowing them to make the decisions, trusting them to make the right decisions ,and more importantly trusting them to know what is best for building the culture that is best suited to their ethos which is aligned with the ultimate goal: to compete for the gold at the Olympics.
How is this so important? In 1984, Toyota and GM formed a
joint venture named NUMMI in Fremont California. At that point, the employees
at the Fremont plant were "considered the worst workforce in the
automobile industry in the United States” . The purpose of the joint venture was for GM to
get access to quality small car manufacturing and an opportunity to learn
about the Toyota Production System, The Toyota
Way, a series of lean manufacturing and management
philosophies that had made the company a leader in the automotive manufacturing
and production industry. It was an eye-opening experience for both management
and labor. One of the first things Toyota did was the install a rope pull at
every station in the plant, which allowed any worker to stop the assembly line
at anytime at any point. Some of the older workers broke out in tears when they
learned of the rope pulls. GM had never trusted them enough to allow them to
stop the line if something is wrong. The philosophy was always to keep the line
moving and they will fix any problems at the end of the assembly line. This very
small instance of trust in their work force made the workers understand the
level of trust that management had in them and the responsibility that the
management was willing to cede to the workers.
Trust is a powerful thing. I see the leadership council as a part of building trust with the players, to give them responsibility for owning their goals and Olympic dreams and for Karch to demonstrate trust.
Implementing the culture is one thing, getting player to believe is quite another. If the NBC reports are to be believed, the Sydney edition of the USWNT had cohesion problems and the USA Softball team saw enough of an issue to meet with the volleyball team to try to keep their eyes on the prize. It is never a good thing when the internal team conflicts become so noticeable that an American team from another sport felt compelled to step in. Culture and ethos may seem like buzzwords, but they are amorphous yet real mental frameworks that any organization must not only agree upon but actively work to establish in order to be successful. This was the kind of historical challenge for the NT head coach.
We are not privy to WHAT he did or HOW he did it, but we are witnesses to the culture in display. Once again, this is not to say that the end justifies the means, that the gold medal redeems all the decisions about the culture. Examining the atmosphere around the team from our perch at home, paying close attention to not only what the teams says when interviewed, but the body language and the signs of being committed from every player during time outs and pre and post set conferences.
Skin in the game is a phrase made popular by renowned investor Warren Buffett referring to a situation in which high-ranking insiders use their own money to buy stock in the company they are running.
As I was observing these players, they played like they had skin in the game. This is remarkable to me in that even though each of the players on the 12 person Olympic roster were all members of highly successful college and professional teams — they understand the concept of having skin in the game in that context. They are also the Alpha women on their respective teams, they are the best of a very small subset of the best volleyball players, which means that they have high levels of confidence in their own abilities, but the meaning of having skin in the game changes when your role on a team change, your perspective changes and your perception of your roles changes as your ego may play a bigger role in your commitment, or how much skin you have in the game.
During Annie Drews’ interview after she stepped into the starting lineup in place of Jordan Thompson and excelled in her performance, she was asked by Heather Cox about what made it possible for her to perform at such a high level as she stepped into the match cold. She responded that one of the things the team asked from the coaches (players taking responsibility) was to have role clarity. Everyone got that part of the message, but the second part of what she said was meaningful to me: “whether you liked it or not”. The implication here is important. The coaches gave the players defined roles for the fourteen-day tournament, and the players took the responsibility of working within those constraints and accepted their roles willingly while keeping their egos checked at the door. A lot to ask from the 23 alphas who were on the larger list of players being considered for the final Olympic team. All are top players at the top of their games, all merited consideration for the final 12 spots.
The skin in the game was also illustrated in what we saw empirically in the behavior and demeanor of all the players who are on the court and more significantly, from those who are not on the court.
In the ubiquitous shot of the bench during the actions all six players were engaged, which is what was expected at all levels of competition. It is more telling when we look at the interaction between those who are coming off the courts and those who are on the bench during time outs and changeovers. Perhaps it is the case where I saw what I wanted to see, but I saw the players taking care of each other, being the eyes and ears of those who are on the court. I especially noticed the interaction between Thompson and Drews, it was the personification of great teammates. Thompson was more excited for Drews, who was playing in her place, than Drews.
Perhaps I am reading too much into the interactions after the final Larson kill hit the floor, but the display of emotions was especially revealing. Winning solves many problems, and we do need to take that into account, but the celebration was so very joyous, amongst the dog pile of players on the court and the coaches group hug. The emotions from Karch were different from his usual stoic manners. The displays of emotions and joy was unconstrained and relentless. Small moments stood out: the camera shot of Karch and Micah Hancock having a moment in the chaos of the celebration; Karch and Haleigh Washington screaming: “Gold medalists!” in front of the NBC cameras; Jordan Larson, tearful in her joy and her teammates mobbing her. They were pictures of joy and immense relief which we often see after a team wins, but I choose to believe that these moments are signs that a culture was established and propagated through many years of hard work and putting the vision out in front of the players and coaxing them to believe.
One reminder from the announcers was particularly poignant was that the 23 players that was on the team all had an extra year to prepare during the pandemic, which meant that they all had to practice and stay in shape on their own, quarantined from one another. This compounds the difficulty of creating a team culture, a collective ethos amongst 23 alphas. All the athletes who participated in Tokyo had to debate whether they wanted to put in another year of effort, all had to postpone any plans. It was a test of just how much skin they had in the game. I also believe that it was an opportunity to develop antifragility. Taking situations that no one had any control over and taking advantage of the serendipity.
In a usual year, these players are all overseas playing for their professional teams, the pandemic curtailed much of that activity. Most were stuck at home, working on their own, but the national team staff never stopped engaging them by any means necessary. I believe, but I don’t know, that this enforced separation gave the space for the players to be away from their hectic schedules and more importantly to devote time towards building their trust in each other as well as the coaches, after all, they had nothing else to do and this was their focus. I am not saying that we should lock away all of our player candidates for the 2024 Paris Olympics to replicate this cohesiveness, that would be resulting on my part. It is just an interesting element to ponder.
As I thought about Karch’s legacy in this gold medal winning
campaign, I made the connection between the leadership that surrounds the USWNT with the
leadership structure described in General Stanley McChrystal’s recent book Leaders:
Myth and Reality
Figure 1: Comparison of myth and reality in leadership.
The top of the figure illustrates the common and linear perception of leadership, where a single leader is credited with driving the accomplishment of the desired result. The leader, through formulaic application of checklists and pre-ordained actions drive the followers towards a successful result, while paying no heed to the context of each situation.
General McChrystal discusses the three myths of leadership that comes from that top illustration, myths that we assume implicitly when we discuss leadership:
· The Formulaic Myth
o Leadership can be made into a checklist.
o Leadership is not contextual.
· The Attribution Myth
o We have tunnel vision regarding the leader, creating a leader cult around the personality.
o We neglect the people surround the individual “leader”.
· The Results Myth
o The results of specific situations justify identifying someone as the leader.
o Only results matter in defining the leader.
The bottom of the figure is how Gen. McChrystal sees leadership, as defined by the interaction of the leader, the followers, and the context of the environment and situations. He puts leadership in the middle of a triangle with leaders, followers, and context defining the three corners of the triangle. As Gen. McChrystal defines it,
Leadership is a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.
The keys that Gen. McChrystal
emphasizes in the illustration are
1. Leadership is contextual and dynamic, and therefore need to be constantly modulated, not boiled down to a formula.
2. Leadership is more an emergent property of a complex system with rich feedback, and less a one-directional process enacted by the leader.
3. The leader is vitally important to leadership, but not for the reasons we usually ascribe. It is often more about the symbolism, meaning that the future potential leaders hold for their system, and less about the result they produce.
I had that model fresh in my mind as I thought about Karch and the entire Olympic campaign.
In this case, the obvious leader is Karch Kiraly, yet I would also place the players as leaders in ad hoc situations. Even as the McChrystal model of leadership disabuse us of the three myths of leadership. I am appreciative of the amount of humility, vision, learner’s mind, and adaptability of Karch’s philosophy towards building this team as a means to Olympic success.
While some may read this a mindless paean to the man, I think of it as a recognition of doing what he thinks is best, being fearless in his pursuit of implementation of his vision, and being equally fearless in adapting to change when the context changes.
Anonymous. "Antifragile." Wikipedia. August 14, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antifragile_(book) (accessed August 15, 2021).
—. "NUMMI." Wikipedia. July 29, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NUMMI (accessed August 15, 2021).
Dukes, Annie. Thinking in Bets. New York: Penguin, 2018.
McChrystal, Stanley, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone. Leaders: Myth and Reality. New York City: Penguin, 2018.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder . NYC: Random House, 2012.