Fear of failure

Fear of failure is well known to be an inhibitor to success both on and off the sports field. In my own sporting experiences, I typically play better against better opposition, when I am excited by success rather than scared of failure. Professional sports people are not immune: England vs Iceland is a recent reminder.

Off the field, while every entrepreneur will preach that “failure is part of the journey to success”, this way of thinking has not passed the tipping point of acceptance within most sports governing bodies. Multiple stakeholders, conflicts of interests and public first impressions all heighten the fear of failure and hence inhibit the rate of innovation. While clearly there are exceptions, my general experience is that most sports administrators are passionate about their sport, desire for it to do well, and are frustrated by the effort it takes to make even the smallest of changes. The bigger the sport, the harder it gets.

My Christmas offering is to suggest a process that will not only surface a large number of new ideas for how to progress a sport, it will also create an environment where it is easier to try them with less of the negative consequences of failing – the equivalent of telling the England team that they will go through whether they beat Iceland or not. It is a process close to my heart, as it is how Hawk-Eye started.

The idea is to promote an “Innovation Amnesty”, which encourages all stakeholders, including fans, to submit their ideas for making a sport better. To direct thinking, there can be specific problems that the process aims to address (e.g. equipment to reduce concussion), in addition to generic categories: game format, equipment, coaching, fan experience, etc. Ideas are put online to be commented on and added to, and to spark new ideas. The commitment from the governing body is to filter and give feedback and celebrate all submissions and provide what is necessary to help the seedlings of the best ideas grow. This might be investment, access or just connections to the right people.

Most ideas will not be viable, so the level of expectation is lower and the cost of failure eliminated. It’s much harder to be critical of Mrs Cove from Manchester’s idea than Mr Coe from Monaco. Periphery benefits: it is very sponsorable and creates an opportunity for a deeper engagement with the core fan base. The other key ingredient is having an established environment to test ideas properly and get quality feedback for the benefits and unexpected consequences. University sport feels like a good place.

A few stocking-filler example ideas to kick off the Christmas pub brainstorm: In cricket, trial two innings, 25 overs per innings. A point for winning each innings and a point for winning overall. At amateur level, allow substitutes between innings to accommodate people who can’t play all day.

In Grand Slam tennis, have a ranking points event during the second week for everyone who was knocked out in qualifying and the first three rounds. This would nicely complement the junior and wheelchair tennis on the outside courts. A rugby sin bin served by a number of laps of the pitch, rather than 10 minutes, so the player doesn’t get a rest, and the faster you go the quicker you come back on (my 10-year-old son’s idea).

In junior rowing, apply inflatable stand-up paddle-board technology, to make boats easier to store, transport and maintain. Change the football law so it’s the middle of the ball that has to cross the line, making it easier for the referee’s human eye to determine a goal. Amateur referees wear a GoPro-style camera to review their decisions, provide evidence of verbal/physical abuse to act as a deterrent.

A 10k athletics race where competitors start at equal distances around the track and are eliminated if they are caught by the person behind them. A simple app that empowers parents to help coach their kids, even if they didn’t play the sport themselves.

My final “big present” idea is the one that I believe would have the biggest benefit to watching some sports – and is the one least likely to happen, predominantly because of the fear of failure. The accepted practice in sports sponsorship is that a company buys the exclusive rights within an industry category. This exclusivity is closely guarded – for example, all Sony employees were instructed not to use the word “London” in any external email during the summer of 2012, because Samsung was an Olympic sponsor.

The essence of sport, with which companies are trying to associate themselves, is that competition makes you better. Andy Murray does all he can to win Wimbledon by maximising his ability, not by trying to stop Djokovic et al from turning up. As a consequence, most sports sponsorship is irrelevant to the narrative and goes unnoticed. How many Olympic sponsors can you remember?

Using golf as an example, a more interesting sponsorship concept would be to “challenge” your industry rival as co-title sponsor: eg the “BMW vs Mercedes Open”. The CEOs from each company would make their player picks for the event, and the winning sponsor would be the one whose players did better. TV would have a new A vs B team narrative, which is what makes the Ryder Cup such a great event, and the sponsors would become relevant. The new competitive tension among the marketing activation would also be a catalyst for innovation, and would sharpen the minds of the various agencies – which company got the most Facebook likes, and so on.

For the “But what if we lost?” brigade, I offer you this: Oxford and Cambridge are widely accepted as the best two rowing universities in the UK because they compete against each other in a high-profile event. When I was at university, both Oxford Brookes and Imperial College were better, but no one knew it.

Much better to be the BMW or Mercedes who embrace competition than the Audi who isn’t even at the race. So, for the CEOs and sponsorship execs, why not make your new year’s resolution to pick up the phone to your biggest competitor, and challenge them to a competitive joint sports sponsorship? And if not, then sponsor a sports Innovation Amnesty instead!

Dr Paul Hawkins OBE challenges convention. He invented Hawk-Eye, a leading innovator in sports technology which has become an integral part of over 20 sports.

Please play responsibly