Sports is by no means an unfamiliar domain for Dr. Brené Brown. The University of Houston research professor whose 2010 TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” went viral and catapulted her into the public eye, has always been, in her words “a sports person.”
“I had to literally give up sports metaphors for Lent one year,” Brown said, “because I would get feedback that would say, especially if I would do something globally, ‘What is this third and 10.’ And I’m like, ‘What is third and 10? How do you make sense of life?’”
The University of Texas Austin grad, of course, follows the all Longhorn teams, but also the Spurs and USA women’s soccer. On Tuesday, October 30, as she took the stage in front of UT students, faculty, staff, and community members from around Austin and Texas for an event hosted by the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation titled “Daring Athletes: Embracing Courageous Leadership in the Age of Toughness,” Brown proudly rocked a Houston Astros shirt.
The “Daring Athletes” event offered an opportunity for Brown to specifically apply her research on shame, empathy, vulnerability, and leadership to the unique challenges and situations athletes and coaches face.
The conversation between Brown and CSLi founding director Daron K. Roberts covered a wide variety of topics under the wide sports umbrella. In responding to Roberts’ questions, Brown often shared stories from her experience interviewing athletes, coaches, and scouts for her research and working with teams and coaches, from Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks to Australia’s AFL (Australian rules football).
“There’s nothing more vulnerable (than sports),” Brown said. “The definition of vulnerability from the data is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Every time any athlete in any sport takes the field, you are vulnerable.”
Brown, who also works extensively with veterans and members of the armed forces, highlighted the concept of “armoring up.” In the military, she explained, you armor up to survive, in sports, you armor up to win. But our athletes, and our service members, have to be taught how to remove that armor when the battle or the game is over.
“The first step is for all of us, whether you’re military or you’re an athlete is ‘What does my armor look like?’” Brown said. “Some of us have worn it so faithfully for so long it’s just become a second skin. We don’t even understand how we self-protect.”
In Brown’s view, this process of teaching athletes to remove their armor starts with coaches. Coaches who not only explain to athletes that they are not their performance on the field and preach the importance of vulnerability and empathy, but who also coach in accordance with those values.
If instead coaches use shame to motivate their players, they will create athletes incapable of rebounding after failure, and it turns out that the ability to reset after a stumble might just be the top predictor of athletic success.
Brown offered this anecdote to support that view. In conducting research for her book Rising Strong, she interviewed a number of professional scouts and asked them what they look for in players.
“Every one of them, didn’t matter what team, they said the same thing, ‘You have to have a minimum skill level to play professional ball. From that skill level it goes all the way up to the ceiling. We’ll take the person who is here at the bottom who can reset after failure over the person at the top any day of the week,’” Brown recalled.
Shame, she explained, prevents people, athletes included, from being able to recover after failure.
Instead, Brown prescribes creating teams where the coaches and captains have “deep care and affection” for those they lead and where athletes are empowered to take the reins and lead from a player level.
“In our interviewing when we asked managers and coaches what one variable would they need to most accurately predict season success, every single one of them said player leadership,” Brown said. “Not the coach, not the manager. Player leadership.”
She cited the story of England’s men’s national soccer team, which struggled notoriously to win matches in penalty kick shootouts. The team brought in kicking expert after kicking expert, but the person to break the curse was a psychologist by the name of Dr. Pippa Grange.
“(Grange) came in and said, ‘You’re not going to be on your phones anymore. When you’re together, you’re going to play Connect 4,’” Brown said. “‘You’re going to talk about your life. You’re going to talk about where you’re from. You’re going to get to know each other. You’re going to get to love each other, and you’re going to learn how to be vulnerable and you’re going to learn how to not connect your self-worth to whether you miss that kick or not.”
In recent years as more athletes and coaches have started to prescribe to this more vulnerable, empathetic way of operating, stories like this have popped up all over, from increased mental health awareness to concussion prevention and treatment and more open team cultures. Brown certainly deserves some credit for this wave of change that is continuing to grow and gain momentum.
Brown’s work in shame, vulnerability, and empathy certainly applies to athletes, but although athletes and coaches may face specific situations and applications that are different from those working in other industries, perhaps the most important takeaway from the “Daring Athletes” event is that athletes are just people. They shouldn’t be expected to be tougher than the general population, or feel emotions less strongly, or lack vulnerability.
“Performance is performance,” Brown said. “Whether it’s athletic performance, whether it’s performance as a social worker, as a CEO in a Fortune 50 company, performance is performance, and if you want to unlock performance, you have to unlock people.That is just the bottom line.”