Risk Management… Good for Performance?

“Risk management” is a principle that spans all sports medicine practices and businesses. It is a necessary concept to protect an athlete and a business. It is necessary to protect one’s butt – we are too often reminded that we live in a litigious society. Does risk management however help performance?

For this discussion, let us step away from business endeavors and legal protection concerns and consider if athletes and teams should take a “risk management” approach to their practices and competitions.  High percentage play leads to greater opportunities for successful outcomes. Conservative play rarely leads to optimal performances. Too often a “risk management” approach during competition leads to the later mindset and low performance as a consequence.

Today, the Tufts University Jumbos lacrosse team defeated Salisbury University’s lacrosse powerhouse to win the division III NCAA national championship.  The Jumbos ended the first quarter with a 6-1 lead.  Their defense played a disciplined (high percentage zone), while their offense attacked, attacked, attacked.  Time of possession was heavily lopsided towards the Jumbos in the first quarter of play and an athletic Salisbury team was held at bay.  In the second period of play Tufts took 14 shots, 3 more than in the first quarter.  They only had one goal to show for this aggressiveness.  Sitting among seasoned lacrosse coaches, I watched them repeatedly cringe when a Jumbo attacked the net only to end up turning the ball over to the vaunted Salisbury offense.  While no one said it out loud at this time, there was little doubt the thought, “Just hold on to the ball and kill the clock,” was an idea that teased everyone.  Manage the risk and you might complete this upset.  At the end of 30 minutes of play, the score sat at 7-4 Tufts.  The athletic Salisbury team looked like it had been awakened.

The third quarter saw one goal from each team, but Salisbury mounted terrific attacks in transition and they looked poised to overtake the NESCAC squad.  The 4th quarter, 15 minutes away from a national title…  Manage risk right?  Jumbos, just don’t turn over the ball and do not allow too many goals against.  Nope… an attacking display like the first quarter occurred with the only difference being far fewer points to show for it.  One could see the Tufts fans (and all others pulling for the squad) squirm in their seats as the Jumbos seemingly refused to kill time when in the offensive zone.  No delay of game flags were thrown and it seemed like the longest time taken without shooting was about a minute and a few seconds.  The Tufts D played great and the offense continued to shoot – something that must have felt quite “risky” after watching Salisbury explode into transition off of turnovers.  Nonetheless, “risk management” did not appear to be an option.  As the clock hit 0:00, Tufts lacrosse found itself the owners of the University’s first team national championship.

One must ask, why not manage risk when the shots were not snapping the back of the net and the opponent seemed primed to take advantage of every turnover?  Because a “risk management” approach does not lead to national championships.  Risk management stems from a fear.  A fear in the “real world” of lawsuits or at very least of close scrutiny of business practices.  In sports, purposefully embracing fear only leads to the infamous “choke.”  On the lacrosse field it leads to less precise cuts, more turnovers, and distracted athletes.  Reckless play is certainly foolish and high percentage play is wise (especially on defense), but extra caution just because it is an “important game” or the “game is on the line” too often leads to low performance and positive outcomes only when luck is on one’s side.

Great athletes and great coaches “risk” making mistakes in order to achieve their potential.  Furthermore, they realize that a good and successful game plan in the first quarter is also quite likely the one to roll with when the game is on the line.  Risk management protects your butt, but hurts your play.  If one is unwilling to risk losing, to risk “looking bad” while giving effort, or to risk learning that an opponent is simply better, athletics might not be the right place to strive.  When the game is on the line, the simplest play or smallest action can feel risky to the athlete.  In order to succeed, these feelings are accepted, but not succumbed to.  The focused and disciplined, but unwavering mind is one that strives successfully at the highest levels.

Congratulations Jumbos.

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