Teaching Your Athlete to Deal with Failure
It’s a motivational tactic that everyone has heard before: “Don’t be afraid of failure. It’s just an opportunity to learn from your mistakes.”
While it is a correct and very admirable way of looking at failure, it’s something that is easier said than done.
Fear of failure is embedded into our culture.
Due to the rise in competition and the emphasis on winning in youth sports, the fear of failing your teammates, coaches, and parents can be overwhelming for young athletes.
It’s becoming more and more important for parents to help their children learn not only how to deal with failure, but more importantly: maximize what they learn from failing.
An Inspiring Story
Before we begin talking about how parents can help their children overcome and learn from failure, there is an interesting story told by Dan James, who used to work for the United States Tennis Association as the head of the wheelchair tennis program.
James, who now works for the Positive Coaching Alliance, tells an inspiring story of a young athlete and parent who embraced failure for a special reason at a tournament in France.
After setting the stage of the story by framing it’s context and the girl’s failures at the tournament (losing four consecutive matches to end her tournament), James explains that he was proud of how much the young girl cared, because of how she cried after the last match.
Then, he delivers the moment that really hits home:
“Ten minutes late, her father walks up to me with tears in his eyes and he says, ‘I am so damn proud of her.’ Evidently, six weeks before that she had had shunt surgery in her brain– and just six weeks later she was playing tennis. She was absolutely triumphant in her failure.”
It’s a heartwarming story, because it frames failure in an interesting light. Sure, the young girl failed in her tennis matches– but that was only after successfully returning from brain surgery.
This story does a great job of framing failure. It puts it into an interesting perspective. People on the outside will only see your failures on the field during games, but they don’t know about all the work that you put in that led to the moment where you may have failed.
If you can teach your young athletes that their perceived failures in the eyes of others, aren’t necessarily failures, but opportunities to learn from their own mistakes.
Sports: A Safe Haven for Failure
Much like any other lesson you can learn from playing youth sports, learning how to overcome and learn from failure is a skill that will benefit your young athlete far along in their lifetime.
Youth sports should be a place where a child can attempt something, and if and when they do fail, they have an opportunity to work on their skills, get back in the game and correct their mistakes.
“What we see a lot today in this, ‘Win at all costs’ culture of youth sports, is parents placing value based on where their child finished that tournament. ‘If they don’t win I’m not a good parent.’” says Matt Hayden, the Positive Coaching Alliance Business Development Manager.
“We need to get away from that bad idea and embrace the idea that sports are a very safe place to fail. What a great opportunity for kids to learn how to deal with failure and bounce back from a mistake,” Hayden says.
As discussed in the post about parents finding their worth from their child’s sporting success, this line of thinking is unhealthy. It staimies the growth of the young athlete if their parent is constantly protecting them from failure.
“We are putting this undue expectation on them to always succeed and always win, that we are losing that opportunity later in life when they don’t get that job or they get a bad grade in class, they could have learned that lesson in sports,” says Hayden. “How to fail, how to deal with that, and improve.”
The key to failure being used as a positive is reflection and learning.
“Failure gives you plenty of chances for improvement, just from the idea of cause and effect. With baseball, it’s so easy to get caught up in the seven out of ten times getting out, but we all know you learn a lot when you fail,” says Callix Crabbe, former MLB player and current head baseball coach at IMG Academy.
“That search, that journey, of trying to improve yourself usually happens through the failures. It’s about making the adjustments to a pitcher, it’s making an error in the ninth inning, and you start to figure out what specifically you need to to do, in order to become a more consistent player and winner,” says Crabbe.
Utilizing Positivity with Failure
In our article about positivity for coaches, we mention the benefits of being positive when coaching. For parents, remaining positive when helping their young athletes maneuver and improve off of failure is also hugely important.
“First of all, positive reinforcement to me, is the most important thing there is. You can be super intense and positive at the same time,” says Graham Betchart, director of mental training for Lucid Performance Inc. “That’s one of the things I found really cool, when you can positively enforce the way someone fails.”
The natural reaction for most parents when their child fails is to shield them completely from the repercussions, which limits the ability of the young athlete to learn from their mistake.
When mistakes are made in the moment, remaining positive and encouraging your athlete to continue with their effort is the best thing you can do, according to Betchart.
“It’s easy to reinforce positively on something good, that happens naturally. For me, what I always look for in sports is– reinforce when you see the growth mindset, reinforce when you see someone make a few mistakes but you see they are getting better,” Betchart says. “They’re not really making mistakes, so you reinforce, ‘Hey, keep coming and keep showing up, keep practicing. You’re going to figure it out.’”
“That’s where I see most young people, most kids that’s where it really helps the most. Teach them how to grow, which of course is all through making mistakes and failure,” says Betchart.