When our children were very young we encouraged failure. As they learned to ride a bike we knew they would struggle, yet we encouraged them to keep trying, knowing at some point they would figure it out and ride safely without our assistance. Failure was a part of learning and growth. When they first hit a ball off the tee, or took shots at the tiny basket in the living room, we encouraged them with all our might to keep trying, knowing that one failure after another would eventually lead to improvement in their hitting or shooting. Failure was a part of learning and growth. Then one day we started to give negative feedback to our young athletes when they made mistakes. When they didn't hit the ball far enough, or they didn't sink enough shots, we got upset with them and told them they needed to do this or that better. Failure was not okay and should be avoided. Now they are a little older and they want to have success in their chosen sport, so we push them harder. They need to hit the ball farther and make more shots. Failure is not okay and should be avoided. Now our athletes fear failure. They do not want to make mistakes. Failure is not okay and should be avoided.
The truth is... A fear of failure can keep an athlete from reaching his or her true potential.
The truth is... Failure is a part of learning and growth.
Can't an athlete simply learn and grow without failure being a part of the equation? Simply said, no they can not. If an athlete only operates within their comfort zone, they can not reach new heights in their development. If a basketball player is comfortable dribbling with their right hand, but not with their left, should they not try to improve their left handed dribble? If a baseball pitcher has a good fastball, but no curveball, should they not try to improve their curveball? Obviously if these athletes want to reach new heights in their development they must work on their weaknesses. All to often though athletes do not want to be exposed to failure and shy away from working on facets of their game, or being put in situations, that may bring failure.
A quick story- In our 13U Fall baseball tournament this past weekend I had one of the players play a few innings at shortstop. He has not played much shortstop. He struggled a bit. He failed a bit. No more or less than any other 13 year old would at a new position. I thought he did a great job and gave great effort. At our Tuesday night practice last night he told me he did not want to play shortstop any more. He fears failure.
So where does this fear of failure come from? The fear can come from a number of places. Often the fear can come from interactions between an athlete and his or her teammates. When an athlete fails, and his or her teammates react negatively, fear can begin to creep in. When a ground ball goes between the shortstops legs, and his teammates throw their arms in the air in disgust, fear starts to creep in. Fear can come from a coaches reaction in much the same way. Athlete makes a mistake, coach gets upset, fear creeps in. A third place fear can come from is parents. Parents can put these same fears in an athlete. On the car ride home the parent is upset because the athlete missed a tackle at the end of the game, fear creeps in.
So how can we turn this around? How can we help our athletes attack situations in which they may fail? We must give our feedback based on things within their control. Feedback should be based on things like giving great effort and being a great teammate. If they give great effort and fail, they will continue to learn and grow. If they are a great teammate and fail, their teammates will support them in their quest to learn and grow.