How Muay Thai Helped Me Re-Think Evaluation

I’ve been training in Muay Thai (kickboxing) for a few years.

I am always learning something new and being pushed outside of my comfort zone … and I love it.

However, I am and have always been a perfectionist.

It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life: sometimes, I’m really proud that I’ve been lenient with myself, and other times, the perfectionism rears its ugly head. 

Lately, I’ve noticed it manifesting at the gym. As I’m trying to apply a new skill in work with a partner or coach, I’ve been getting frustrated and self-critical.

My self-protective instincts (ironically not working to appropriately block a punch or kick) have made me think, “I don’t like this aspect or that skill,” instead of allowing me to see that this is a process of growth and that there is no place for perfection in that process.

I think organizations (and the people within them) can be the same way when it comes to evaluation.

We get used to our routines, we think we’ve perfected them, and then one of a few scenarios happen that push us out of our comfort zones.

Maybe we are required to learn a new system or skill, or — even worse! — we get feedback that doesn’t match our own perceptions.

Now at the gym, my feedback can be a simulated sparring round that doesn’t end so well for me.

But in our workplaces, while we are focused on serving the people we care about, feedback that we’re not doing so well is upsetting to hear and painful to accept.

That upset and pain is followed by questions — “What could we do differently?”Why is so-and-so doing well at this when we’re struggling?” or even “Is this feedback accurate or reliable?” 

Our self-protective instincts kick in.

The anticipation of negative feedback — in whatever form — is a huge barrier for people (including myself!) to try new things, reflect on their own performance, or seek help and other perspectives.

Certainly, the accountability culture in education has only made these innate fears and insecurities worse. 

Today at the gym was different though.

The past few days, I’ve been more reflective about why I’m getting so frustrated and how that is keeping me from truly learning and growing.

So today, I tried to pay attention to the moments when I got frustrated (ie. I collected some data on myself!).

I worked with my coach to talk through those negative feelings and develop some strategies I could try in those situations.

Then, I practiced and stayed open to more feedback… and by the end of the session, I felt more resilient and confident in my skills than I had in awhile. 

Terms and methods like “continuous improvement” and “improvement science” get used a lot in both education and evaluation, and they are proven methods for making institutional (or personal) changes on all levels.

I’m sure that what I did at the gym today was just a tiny Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle. 

Yet for me, these formal frameworks for self-assessment and reflection can sometimes be hard to grasp – and they can feel like another thing we’re accountable for doing.

However, we can look at them more simply: sometimes, all we need to do is recognize that we’re passionate but not perfect, allow ourselves to be open to feedback, and develop an authentic plan for how we can improve.

This is true for individuals and organizations.

As an evaluator, I love the moments when conversations about data lead to a-ha moments instead of feelings of defeat. (Data visualization is especially helpful here.)

Sometimes, when we take a step back and think about why we’re assessing or evaluating, we can see that it’s not all about accountability and funding requirements (and not about our individual or collective insecurities either).

Sometimes, it is just about putting our guard down (or up, if you’re at the gym), remembering that we can always do better, and learning to see our imperfections as a sign of growth in the making.