This Website Will Embrace Failure

In a 16th century play known as “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus,” an angel was depicted with a devil to provide competing choices. I used to be terrified that when I provided advice to an athlete, I’d be wrong. The first time I was called the Beta Angel, it was by a young 5.14 climber named Christian who was always terrified he’d turn around and I’d be there watching. I’m still scared sometimes. I still ask myself how others view me and then strive to be my perception of some sort of ideal representation of a coach. I can’t help it – I want to be thought of as a “great” coach. But this website cannot just be about my successes. Here are my arguments for why we as a community need to emphasize experimentation and failure:

  1. As practitioners we must strike a balance between “getting it right” and action.  The best corollary I can find is the U.S. Military healthcare system’s approach, referred to as “focused empiricism” in the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s 2016 report on a National Trauma Care System.  Sometimes the best quality data is not available BUT data can be found AND there is a need to take actions and improve outcomes. U.S. Military medical leadership thus improve the military medical system through an approach that combines the “best available” data with experience to ensure action, and then iterates as better data becomes available to create better action and outcomes.
  2. Here’s a quote by a data scientist over at Fivethirtyeight: “Contrary to how it’s sometimes represented to the public, science is not a magic wand that turns everything it touches to truth. Instead, it’s a process of uncertainty reduction…’Science is a process rather than an answer,’ said psychologist Alison Ledgerwood of the University of California, Davis. Every answer is provisional and subject to change in the face of new evidence. It’s not entirely correct to say that ‘this study proves this fact,’ Ledgerwood said. ‘We should be talking instead about how science increases or decreases our confidence in something.’”
  3. This is the approach we need to take with climbing. As a result, not everything I do here is going to be perfect. After surveying most rock climbing research out there, I’m left with the unmistakable conclusion that we still have a lot left to learn. Or as Doug Hunter, co-author of The Self-Coached Climber, said to me over the phone one day: “There are coaches out there who are ahead of the research.” I want to be one of those coaches. This means I’ll need to take chances and occasionally get things wrong. And that’s okay. Call me out on it. Be civil, but absolutely tell me why you think I don’t have things quite right. I want to learn, but to do that I may have to be a little controversial.

“No Capes!”

Scene from the movie The Incredibles
Unknown Creator

In a recent meme I came across about the movie The Incredibles, the author amusingly describes how Edna’s (a character who designs superhero costumes) confidence is a natural evolution of making a cape which allegedly led to the death of a superhero. Allow me this small bit of paraphrased plagiarism as I channel my inner Edna to cope with the consequences of my own making: “The thing is, I need to be confident. I need to be THE BEST so that the tragedies of my past don’t happen again. I make choices. And the choices are the reason that repercussions – sometimes funny, sometimes not so funny – happen. I need to be better than I was, better than I am, so I set these standards for myself.” So yes, I have the confidence to make radical suggestions, and sometimes those will lead to failure.

In Dr. Adam Grant’s book on original thinking, he writes that: “[Creative thinkers] come up with a large number of ideas. [Psychologist Dean] Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality.” My own way of providing this volume is to do constant alternative thinking. And to do that, I need to be both angel on the right shoulder, and devil on the left – constantly whispering the advice that will help both me, and my student, learn the most. In the halls of this reverse academy, where the teachers are wrong, you’re going to read about teachers taking risks and embracing their failures:

  • First, go to the Clipping Heat Maps under “Research – Data Collection” and view the information the Beta Angel team created from data on a World Cup final and Semi-final. You’ll see that our initial identification of a possible trend in the Final – that success may be related to clipping from a lower position – appeared to be wrong once we looked at a semi-final with more data. It’s an extremely small amount of data, and it’s a very low-tech method. You can do better.
  • Now let’s generalize a little. In the research inventory you’ll see research which is oversimplified. You will get immensely more if you can access and read the article in question. But this inventory is meant to ease the path of climbers into the science of rock climbing. And to do that, the team here felt it was alright to over-simplify. Translation, however, means we will inevitably get things wrong. Help us make it better.
  • You are going to hear case studies about unintended consequences. When this happens, hopefully you get a chance to hear my evil cackle. One example I can give you is with a climber I’ve taught for five years who I required to do a form of endurance training for two solid weeks prior to her Bouldering Regional Championship (Yes, I had my reasons). The training caused a very dynamic climber to lose her ability to be dynamic – badly so. On her final climb she spent the full five minutes up- and down-climbing before finally committing to the dynamic move. After the climb she stormed up to me in anger and exclaimed: “I climbed that like a ROUTE—because of YOU!” I couldn’t stop laughing at her, and she couldn’t stay mad at me for long. This is the simplest example of an unintended consequence of training associated with a concept I first read about in psychology research called “priming.” Priming works with the body as well as it does with the mind. And this example is only the tip of the iceberg.

Learning from my mistake may make me shout “No Capes!” But that doesn’t have to mean an absence of creativity.

How My Athletes Learned to Love the Beta Devil

Photos of Arabella Jariel and Taylor Reed
Left: Taylor with Arabella Jariel in the early years. Right: Arabella embracing the Beta Devil in the later years.

If you succeed enough, the athletes will allow you to fail from time-to-time… possibly more. In fact, it’s possible now that I have tilted too far – that by becoming ok with failure I now take risks and experiment with abandon. My own learning requires that when I fail, I get angry with myself and own up to it – even to my athletes. This helps me control my over-confidence and even helps build the relationship with my athlete. And the next athlete will benefit even more. At this point I’m scarred from dozens of nicks and the occasional gash – and my athletes appreciate that I’m willing to take a calculated risk, and suffer a nick or a gash, in order to make a successful advance. To be their Beta Angel, I also need to be their Beta Devil.

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