Here’s a book that should get you thinking – Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong by Eric Barker. It’s definitely not a coaching book, but it touches on elements of individual and group performance and management.

The book comprises six chapters that look at two sides of different topics and seek to find a balance. Those chapters and topics are:

  1. Should we play it safe and do what we’re told if we want to succeed?
  2. Do nice guys finish last?
  3. Do quitters never win and winners never quit?
  4. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know (unless it really is what you know).
  5. Believe in yourself … sometimes
  6. Work, work, work … or work-life balance?

Basically, each chapter presents what might be some disappointing news, then counters it. For example, how being a jerk has its benefits, but also that being a good guy is a good thing. The author does a really nice job combining stories with research (for which there is a huge bibliography) to make it a enjoyable as well as informative read.

I actually saved several quotes from the book I found particularly interesting. Some I see as having specific coaching applications or implications. I have follow-up posts on those. Here, however, are a few others.

“The lesson from cases of people both keeping and losing their jobs is that as long as you keep your boss or bosses happy, performance really does not matter that much and, by contrast, if you upset them, performance won’t save you.”

So winning lots of matches won’t save you if the people who determine your future aren’t happy with you.

“The progress you see doesn’t need to be big. As Harvard professor Teresa Amabile found, “Our research inside companies revealed that the best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress—even small wins.” In fact, the data shows that consistent small wins are even better at producing happiness than occasionally bagging an elephant: “Life satisfaction is 22 percent more likely for those with a steady stream of minor accomplishments than those who express interest only in major accomplishments.”

Think about this both for yourself and in terms of your athletes. How can you focus on incremental gains or achievements?

“What about doing more things outside your career, akin to Matt’s journey to China? It turns out that trying stuff outside your field of expertise is correlated with big achievements. The average scientist is about as likely to have a hobby as any member of the public. However, eminent scientists (members of the Royal Society or National Academy of Sciences) are nearly twice as likely to have one. Nobel Prize–winning scientists? Almost three times as likely. Steven Johnson found the same thing holds true for geniuses of the past, like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin. These guys had a lot of hobbies. Facing different challenges in different contexts allowed them to look at things differently, to challenge assumptions, and to realize breakthroughs. Getting lots of different ideas crashing together turns out to be one of the keys to creativity.”

What are you doing, or could you be doing, to expand your exposure to different contexts? This is particularly relevant if you are a full-time coach. I can personally attest to the value.

I definitely recommend giving Barking Up the Wrong Tree a read. The chapters are quite long, but do have points where you can comfortably pause if you’re like me and tend to read in short bursts.  I think you’ll find in them a lot of interesting insights that can help you both personally and in working with your teams.

Additional insights

Here are some other posts I’ve done on content from the book.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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