Monday, January 4, 2016

An Organization that Flaunts Failure and Turns it Into Joy: The Northern California Women's Hockey League

Happy New Year everyone.  I hope 2016 brings you what you need.

This is, perhaps mercifully, the final post in a short series on failure.

The first post, The Cornerstone Skill Few Talk About or Even Acknowledge, argued that failure is the cornerstone skill...the skill all other skills are built on.  Part 2 was How and Why to Get Better at Failing, based largely on a talk by Pema Chodron.  The third post, Organizations and the "Portals of Discovery" talked about the role of organizations in helping their people learn to fail better for a host of reasons, one of which was as a means of improving innovation.  (If interested, all three posts can be found here or on my LinkedIn home page.)

In this final post, I want to talk about an organization that I think really understands this notion that failure is the portal to discovery.  They have put in practices to not only make failure okay but to actually flaunt failure.  As a result their members are discovering joy and developing extraordinary skill.

Is it some cutting edge Hi-Tech company?  Is is it an arts organization like Burning Man for example?  Is it an organization involved in charitable giving?  It is none of the usual suspects.

The organization that flaunts failure and turns it into skill and joy is the Northern California Women's Hockey League (NCWHL).

In my profile, I indicate I am a rabid hockey fan.  I love watching and playing the game.  I didn't get bitten by this bug until my mid 40s, but to the dismay of many around me, the conversion was instantaneous and complete.

So obsessed did I become, that in a "if-you-can't beat em, join em" moment, my wife decided to attend one of the NCWHL's "Give Hockey a Try" days and played in the league for a couple years.  This is how I discovered a little about their organization.

From their webpage, the NCWHL is a non-checking, recreational women's ice hockey league founded in 1993 with the following objectives:
  • To provide women of all abilities a place to play ice hockey with and against other women.
  • To promote women’s ice hockey in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • To promote good sportsmanship
In the Give Hockey a Try day, the NCWHL provides all the equipment so no one is deterred from trying hockey by the big investment in equipment.  All the elbow, hip, and shoulder pads, the sticks, the helmets, the skates...everything is free for the day.

Keep in mind most signing up for this day are not fearless kids who will try anything and who easily bounce back from an injury.  These are women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.  There is a fair amount of nervous laughter as people get their gear situated about what exactly they have gotten themselves into.

What's the first thing they have everyone do when they get on the ice?  Please guess.

That is incorrect.

Before they skate anywhere, before they pass, before they shoot, before some of them even let go of the boards they are clinging to for dear life, they have everyone fall down on the ice...repeatedly. 

Why do they do this?  So they can learn that because of all the padding, falling (failing) doesn't hurt.  They tell them it not only doesn't hurt physically, but they should not be embarrassed by it.  The attitude is:  It happens to all of us.  It is how we learn.  It is what happens on the way to having fun.  So let's all do it together and get over it.

Honestly, where else have you seen an introduction to something new that starts with failing, potential pain, and perhaps the most embarrassing thing possible?

There's more.  During the intro session, when someone goes down on the ice like a sack of potatoes, as will happen to anyone trying hockey for the first time, all the women on the ice stop and applaud.  Coaches, players, everyone.  And not in that jeering kind of way you and your friends did it in high school and college when someone dropped a plate or a tray in the cafeteria.  But in a celebratory, no one cares, this is how we get better kind of way.

After trying hockey for a day, some women, of course, take the equipment off, run away as fast as they can and never look back.

But for many others, the hockey gods sprinkle the magic dust on them...they get bit by the game, the challenge, the camaraderie...and they start a life-long love affair with playing hockey.

Some women who decide to join the beginner league are not in the best shape.  Many were not athletes in their youth.  They have worked and raised families.  They have a few extra pounds like the rest of us.  They are courageously starting to play a difficult game as an adult because they have fallen in love with it.

In actual games, if a woman goes down on the ice and is struggling to get back on her skates, they just stop the game for her.  Read that sentence again.  They stop the game and teammates and opposing players will help her up.  Then they just face-off and start the game up again.  No whining from the other team.  No disgusted eye rolls.  No claims of diving.  No delay of game penalties for failing in this league.

Don't get me wrong.  It is not that these women are not competitive and don't like to win as much as the next person.  But when have you heard of a more supportive atmosphere in team sports?

Some women stay at this entry level of play.  They are happy just to be able to be on the ice, playing a game they love.

But many go way beyond that Give Hockey a Try day and end up getting very serious about it.  They practice and work on skating and stick handling and passing and shooting.  And they join or rejoin gyms to improve their strength, mobility, and endurance.  As a result, they get better and progress to higher level, more competitive women's leagues and even co-ed leagues.  In both cases, the hockey can be fast and skilled.

A high level of skill.  A high level of success. A high level of camaraderie.  A high level of joy.  All from going through the portal of failure.  All from starting with failure.  All from celebrating failure so that failure does not become a deterrent to incredible possibilities.

We need more organizations like this.  A lot more.  And we can build them if we get better at failing by understanding what failure is, how to go through it, and how to use it.

Please share your thoughts below on how organizations can and do support failure or your thoughts on hockey...watching or playing.


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