What tennis reveals about the limits of behaviour-based safety

Mike Goddu's picture
Mike Goddu, Partner & Co-Founder, JMJ Associates
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Organisations using behavioural-based programs to improve safety performance have reaped benefits, but the benefits have flat-lined. It is time to evolve.

A story: After more than thirty years, I recently picked up a tennis racquet, took a few lessons and found myself enjoying the game immensely. Then, after a few months, the same poor habits I recall having as a teen showed up again. Weak backhands, shanked serves and thoughtless errors spotted my game like measles.

“What is wrong with me?” I thought. “Why can’t I get better?" 

My backhand in particular was troublesome. Each was executed by leaning back on my heels, gripping the racquet tightly, and taking a short, chicken-wing-like stab at the ball. One could not easily count the number of bad behaviours visible in a single backhand. Well-meaning and well-paid instructors worked with me on these errors yet I saw barely incremental improvement.

I continued to make a lot of bad choices with every backhand.

Recently, an instructor witnessed my latest, futile flail from an adjacent court. Out of the side of his mouth he challenged, “You’re afraid of it. Admit it.”  Then he returned his attention to his paying student.

“Say What?! Me!? Scared?!”   Although no one else heard him, my face reddened (and not from exertion). 

A few minutes later I failed at two more backhands near his teaching court and he repeated, “You’re scared of it. You don’t WANT it.”

“I’ll show him.”  

With no conscious thought or effort, I’m up on the balls of my feet, leaning athletically forward. I meet the next incoming ball to my backhand side with a natural, free-flowing upward swing that arcs the return shot beautifully over the net, cross-court, out of reach of my startled competitor. I can see the ball clearly; my body weight moves in the direction of the shot; my grip, wrist and arm relaxed; the swing slower yet more powerful.

Echoing the work of Inner Game of Tennis coach Tim Gallwey, I had made radical changes in behaviour that transcended mechanics, process, metrics, reporting. In fact, these changes transcended time itself.

Self-awareness of what shaped my behaviour -- lack of confidence and fear in this case -- changed the possibility for accomplishment in a flash. Literally.

“I’ve GOT this! My competitor is now back on his heels!”

I have retained the insight and capability, that afternoon and every match since. Confidence and success drives new behaviours, the tennis ball and my performance.  New memories flood my muscles and new metrics flash on the scoreboard.

My tennis behaviour, although directly tied to all my shots on the court is not the cause of my performance.

This seems 100% counter-factual to an observer, to behaviourists, and back in the workplace, to most construction managers: “We have to get our workers to stop making mistakes, to pay attention, and to stop making bad choices.”

Focusing on behavioural approaches to fix my backhand reaped little benefit – identifying underlying drivers transcended the errors, in fact, transformed the player!  Perhaps it is time to evolve beyond behavioural approaches.

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Photo: Courtesy of  JMJ Associates.