3 Leadership Lessons I learned From Beach Volleyball

“Damn,” I thought, after another humiliating tournament loss. “You’re better than 90% of the players here, yet you’re finishing on the bottom rung every time. What’s going on?”

I’ve played competitive beach volleyball for 5 years, and have consistently placed in the top 3 of each tournament. I’ve advanced every year—I jump higher, pass better, spike harder. But no matter my improvements, I couldn’t seem to master the King of the Beach tournament style (KOB), where players rotate partners after each game. I rarely placed better than 16th out of a pool of 20, yet I could spring higher, block better, and out-hit most of the competition.

After consoling myself with “I’m better than them,” so many times, I realized I wasn’t better. There was some skill missing that I didn’t have or wasn’t using. And at my last tournament—where I placed first in my division—I discovered the missing ingredient:

leadership.

In regular doubles, players practice with each other dozens of times before partnering up. You have to establish chemistry. But there’s no such luxury in KOB—you either make on-the-spot corrections and motivate your partner, or you flunk out of the pool. Like I did for my first 5 tournaments.

My reaction to unskilled partners was, “What’s wrong with him? Why is he sucking?” But in last week’s tournament, I took a different perspective: “I know he can do better. How can I bring out his highest level?”

I adopted a leadership perspective. And I won.

Here are the top 3 leadership lessons I learned from my first successful KOB tournament:

1-False positivity is worse than a negative

I routinely placed in the bottom twenty at my KOB tournaments because of false positivity. My partner would shank a pass and I’d just beam, tell him he’d do better next time, and clap him on the back. But better never came.

I focused so much on staying positive that I forgot about my own game. Then I’d shank passes and miss easy kills. I’d cuss under my breath and slink from the court after another loss. But boy did I have a big smile!

Then I learned that good leaders need to be pro-negative.

If you recognize a habit that’s killing your team’s performance, not even Tom Cruise’s smile can bring your production back on line—the problem needs to be addressed and remedied.

In my first place KOB finish this weekend, I learned how to make a criticism sandwich, as Tim Ferriss calls it. When my partners weren’t passing correctly, I’d follow this process:

A-I thanked them sincerely and praised their efforts. “That last dig was ridiculous—such a good dig. I love playing with you.”

B-Then I’d call out the problem and provide the solution: “But we’re bleeding points right now, and it’s because of our passing. So get your platform out early and pass it low like you know how. Get it right to my hands.”

C-Then I’d finish with another positive in the form of a compliment: “You’re playing lights out, so let’s have fun and put the next one straight down. You’ve got this.”

With that simple sandwich recipe, I improved the most out of every player in the tournament, finishing number 1 in my pool. All I had to do was ditch my anti negative attitude and address the problems with good humor.

2-Leaders consistently practice what they preach 

Though good leaders do more than set examples, leadership is impossible without practicing what you preach.

I flopped in my KOB tournaments because I wasn’t congruent. I dropped to my partner’s level of play. If he didn’t want to pass, I’d condescend my level of play.

I didn’t feel confident enough to address the problem. So I just slid to the backseat and watched another loss unfold. I didn’t practice leading from the front.

But when I grew the confidence to critique my partners, I knew I had to execute at my highest level or I’d look like a fraud. I made sure to set 2 feet off the night and 16 feet high before I demanded a better set. I squared up my platform and showed the kind of pass I needed before I asked for it. And, when the score card came in, I ended up on top.

It’s amazing what people will do for you when you show them how to do it.

3-Say thank you more often

Most of us bash ourselves when we fail, and we forget to applaud ourselves when we get it right. But we all need positive reinforcement for a job well done if we expect continued results. Good leaders remind us of that need by constantly encouraging good behavior.

In my successful KOB, I said thank you after each play, and I didn’t care if it sounded repetitive, because my thanks came from the heart. “What a beautiful pass. Just where I needed it. Keep it up.” Or, “That was 3 spikes in a row! You’re doing awesome man, thanks.”

My gratitude boosted the confidence of my partners so that they performed at their peak. And when the score for the final round was tallied, I won each game by an average of 10 points or more. I figured out that a little thank you goes a long ways.

Conclusion

After my first KOB win, I wondered why I never led before. It was pretty easy, really. All I had to do was confront issues head on, play as hard as I wanted my partners to, and thank them consistently for doing good work. I guess it just took a little courage to step up and be more than I had been.

This article first appeared on FastCompany.com

Written by Daniel Dowling