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How to Help Athletes With Failure

Responding to failure in sports can be difficult for parents and coaches. Nobody wants to fail, and the feeling of vulnerability that often accompanies moments of perceived failure can be incredibly challenging. On some level, it may even hurt. But these instances are an inevitable part of sport, and it’s vital that we know how to support young athletes when they occur.

Within many traditional sporting environments, athletes are inadvertently taught to fear failure and avoid failing at all costs. In invasion games like football or rugby, for instance, losing possession might lead to your team conceding a goal; in sports such as tennis or volleyball, a misplaced shot can give the opponent a point; or stumbling just once during a one-hundred-metre sprint could make a difference of several places when you cross the finish line.

Making mistakes such as these is a natural part of sport. But, when we fixate upon outcomes, they can become a source of anxiety for many athletes, potentially damaging their self-confidence, evoking negative thoughts and emotions, and even diminishing their enjoyment of sports.

However, increasing research shows that, when we respond to it positively and proactively, failure can be a valuable educational tool. In the following article, we explore this idea further, as we assess shifting cultural attitudes to failure, consider its importance in building strong mindsets, and discuss how to improve athlete resilience and help athletes deal with supposed failures in a healthy way.

Finally, we outline steps that parents and coaches can take, both to challenge traditional narratives in youth sports environments, and to facilitate a wider cultural shift in how failure is perceived.

Understanding Cultural Attitudes and the Instinct to Avoid Failing

In wider society, we are often conditioned to fear failure; we are taught to frame success solely in terms of outcomes, and to avoid negative results at all costs. Naturally, this culture is reflected in many of our traditional sporting environments, where a mentality that ‘winning is everything’ regularly undermines the opportunities afforded to young athletes. In fact, many young people may even imagine that failure will lead to further punitive outcomes, such as deselection, or reprimand from a coach or parent.

For athletes, fixation upon a performance-based outcome (for instance, whether they are picked in the starting lineup, their team wins the game, or they beat a certain time) makes it harder to appreciate other valuable aspects of their sporting experience, or to build resilience against inevitable setbacks. As risks that may lead to failure are increasingly avoided, unhealthy preoccupations with perfectionism, and comparisons with peers — arguably more prominent than ever in the era of social media — become more significant.

Fixation on outcome rather than process can also increase the likelihood that individuals experience frustration, anger, or even sadness or shame through their participation in sports. And these negative emotions and feelings can in turn cause them to worry and lose self-confidence, and subsequently avoid competition or challenging situations.

Of course, as athletes transition along developmental pathways towards high-performance, performance outcomes will grow in importance. Athletes will need to adjust their attitudes towards success and failure accordingly — particularly if their long-term aims are to compete at the highest levels possible. But, in order to best support younger athletes in reaching this stage of development, we must first help them to stay involved in sport and form good learning habits.

Responding positively to a setback, turning failure into a learning opportunity, and moving forward takes practice. To succeed in all walks of life, we need some level of resilience and determination, and sports — particularly the act of dealing with failure in sports — provide great opportunities for individuals to build and refine these skills.

Consequently, perceptions of failure within the world of sport are shifting. Increasing research acknowledges its importance as an educational tool, recognising the need to experience failure in order to grow. In essence, children not only require opportunities to fail, but must be encouraged to take responsibility for their failure and consider its potential causes; while constant success can actually diminish an athlete’s desire to try and work harder, failure — when attributed to a lack of effort, motivation, or unfinished learning — can be a powerful driver of further improvement.

Of course, failure can only be an effective learning opportunity if we give an athlete the adequate support to understand and respond to it. We must reframe our own attitudes to success and failure and convey this to our athletes — not just with words, but through our actions and the sporting environments we create. Below, we explore how coaches and parents can help athletes respond to failure and then harness it to further their development.

Using Sports, Competition, and Training to Practise Failing

The value of failure as an educational tool extends beyond sport into all aspects of life. Most of the successful people we have encountered in our own lives will have experienced their fair share of failure or disappointment, taken a moment to learn from what happened and regroup, and then moved forward. In fact, an ability to react positively to failure is arguably among the most valuable skills we can teach young people. Therefore it’s essential that we give them adequate opportunities to become familiar with failure, and the feelings or emotions it may inspire, and then react to it.

The capacity for sport to create moments of failure (with relatively safe or minor consequences) is perhaps unrivalled. Through both training and competition, we have innumerable opportunities to give young athletes autonomy — to try, explore new things, and sometimes fall short — and teach them to accept those moments as part of the learning process; a mistake, whether at training or during competition, can be a natural part of part of participating, but not a disaster; if they respond positively, they can still achieve their long-term goals.

Again, this is dependent upon the environments we create. Coaches must endeavour to establish positive, unconditional relationships with their athletes, built upon foundations of mutual trust. The resultant sense of safety that athletes feel is integral to them developing the willingness to experiment and step outside of their comfort zones.

This is an approach embraced by Olympic medal-winning USA Volleyball coach Karch Kiraly, who famously claims to encourage mistakes in his training gym: “We call them OTIs — Opportunities to Improve,” he explains. “But they can’t happen if people hold back or they’re too critical with themselves. Learning can be a really uncomfortable process. But if we can lean into it — be okay getting things wrong, perhaps feeling embarrassed, and receiving feedback — that will make us better learners.”

As Kiraly explains, struggling with fear or low confidence, negative self-talk, or notions of shame can significantly impede the learning process. Someone who believes they have failed should not feel an instinct to hide or pretend that their mistake never happened, but instead feel capable to accept and face it in the present moment, and then use it as an opportunity for improvement. Whether or not they can do that is not simply down to the individual and their personality; it is, in part, a product of the environment in which they operate.

To better understand the importance of fear-free environments, we can consider the power of play: when a child engages in informal play, they do not experience pressure; they feel complete freedom; they are empowered to create their own rules, take risks, and practise new skills or actions; and thus, through the absence of fear or an overbearing notion of consequence, they are able to reach a heightened state of learning. Research even suggests that optimal performance often occurs in this state of enhanced freedom too.

Furthermore, when engaging in informal play — whether individually or as part of a team — children feel an intrinsic motivation to participate. Free of fear, and driven by enjoyment, they derive a sense of fulfilment from the process, not the outcomes it may produce. As coaches and parents, we cannot take our athletes’ motivation for granted. Whether their aims are to reach a high-performance setting or simply to enjoy a lifetime of participation in their sport, this feeling of intrinsic motivation is essential.

Accordingly, removing fear from youth sports environments — and discarding the outdated use of fear as a motivational tool — is crucial to facilitating the development of young athletes. We can accomplish this through simple techniques such as embracing mistakes, encouraging freedom of expression, and, perhaps most importantly, living these values ourselves. We will all make the occasional mistake in front of our athletes and children; many of the practices we deliver won’t be perfect; but, by acknowledging and accepting these imperfections when they do occur — by owning them, moving on, and treating them as valuable learning experiences — we can set a positive example for the young people around us.

Coaches have excellent opportunities to set the culture within sporting environments by modelling the behaviours they wish to see in their athletes. By taking risks themselves — and being openly vulnerable to getting things wrong, receiving feedback, and learning new ways of doing things — they can encourage this mindset in the young people they work with. Again, this depends upon context — there’s a distinct difference between a coach who has earned the trust of their athletes admitting a mistake, and one who lacks competency hiding behind a projection of vulnerability — but effectively modelling vulnerability can provide a powerful image for young people.

Away from the training ground, competitive environments inevitably provide opportunities for success and failure. On any given day, there will be people or teams who win, and those who don’t. If athletes are in an appropriate environment, where they receive an appropriate level of challenge, they will experience both. In more competitive contexts, they may experience a greater degree of uncertainty, once more giving us opportunities to help them learn to cope with discomfort; by helping athletes to channel this discomfort into a competitive ‘edge’ we can ultimately help them to become more resilient. Likewise, if we create practice environments where athletes constantly try new things, they will sometimes experience failure when attempting new tasks. But, through persistence, they will also see themselves improve.

When we adopt this approach to learning and failure, playing sports can help athletes to build mental and emotional resilience that will benefit them in all aspects of their lives. Next, we discuss how to help athletes with failure in more detail, and consider ways to build resilience through sport.

Harnessing Failure to Develop Athlete Resilience

To appreciate the value of failure as an educational tool, we must first understand the importance of mindset. In simple terms, the concept of mindset and performance, established by internationally renowned psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, defines an individual’s mindset as their set of beliefs around traits such as talent, intelligence, and ability. Ultimately, it determines whether they believe those qualities are innate, and static, or attributes that can be developed and improved through effort. The two mindsets, elaborated below, are known as fixed and growth mindsets respectively:

Fixed Mindset

A person with a fixed mindset will often:

  • Consider ability and intelligence to be unalterable
  • Believe that failure is permanent
  • Avoid taking risks, due to fear of failing
  • Take critical feedback personally
  • Choose easier tasks, and give up when facing challenging situations or adversity
  • Focus on measurable outcomes and accomplishments

Growth Mindset

Individuals with growth mindsets typically:

  • Believe skills and ability can be improved through effort and hard work
  • Consider failure a chance to learn
  • Value opportunities to try new things 
  • Appreciate feedback as a tool for improvement 
  • Embrace more difficult tasks, and see obstacles as a chance to problem-solve
  • Focus on their learning journey, and the potential for ongoing improvement

Research shows that individuals with growth mindsets are often higher achievers due to their willingness to embrace challenges, persistence when facing adversity, motivation to improve, and appreciation of the importance of effort. This ability to focus on their learning journey rather than outcomes, and to perceive failure as a necessary part of success, not only helps athletes to cultivate greater resilience, but enables them to take increased ownership of their development, and ultimately enjoy their sport more through an enhanced sense of confidence, competence, and autonomy.

Fortunately, this mindset can itself be developed. Therefore it’s vital that we give young athletes the necessary support to establish healthy perceptions of failure, form positive mindsets, and embrace setbacks and adversity as learning opportunities.

Helping Athletes to Build Resilience: Tips for Parents and Coaches

Resilience in sport, and in life, is something that we must work to develop. It is a skill to be learned, practised, and honed. As coaches and parents, we can help young people to build resilience by setting positive examples and providing appropriate environments in which to experience and respond to setbacks.

This hypothesis is supported by the work of Neuroscience Trainer Kathryn Berkett, who asserts that resilience is a trait we can improve similarly to fitness; according to Berkett, we can build resilience by being exposed to tolerable levels of stress and then recovering. Thus sport, where coaches can manipulate the context around training and competitions in order to regulate the moments of stress that athletes experience, is an incredibly powerful tool in helping children to increase their levels of resilience over time.

We can lay the foundations for this approach by first helping athletes to understand what a growth mindset is, and why it is important — and then by offering advice on how to cultivate such a mindset through their behaviour.

Tips for Developing a Growth Mindset

Practical advice for young athletes, to help them build a strong mindset:

  • Avoid social comparisons: if a teammate or competitor performs well, do not feel threatened or lose confidence. Instead, take the opportunity to self-reflect; think about what they do well, and ask yourself what you need to do to get there.
  • Persistence and effort are key: we cannot control the attributes we were born with, but we can determine how hard we work.
  • Practice optimism: think about your best possible self and how you can become that person. And believe that you can do it.
  • Seek feedback: feedback is a gift. It helps us direct our efforts so that we can improve more effectively. Value feedback when you receive it, and seek it out when you can.
  • Don’t dwell on mistakes: mistakes happen to everybody; don’t let them negatively affect your emotions, enjoyment, or motivation; don’t feel sad succumb to negative self-talk. Learn from them and move on quickly.
  • Set your own goals: once you’ve worked out the areas in which you want to improve (perhaps with help from your coaches or parents), let them drive your goals. Then focus on your own developmental objectives and don’t be distracted by other people’s.
  • Take responsibility for your performance: don’t blame people or external factors if you are struggling, or when outcomes don’t match your expectations. You control your own behaviour and actions.
  • Take ownership of your learning: don’t rely solely on guidance from others; reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses, and consider how you can get better.
  • Set realistic goals: avoid perfectionism, and maintain reasonable expectations when goal-setting. You can always control your level of effort. If you work hard, you will improve.

Developing a strong mindset takes time and effort. Many athletes waver occasionally, but, by reminding them of these tips (and, again, by modelling these attitudes and behaviours ourselves), we can guide them back towards an outlook centred upon effort.

We can also be more proactive in helping athletes to cope with failure and build resilience by carefully designing the sporting environments that we provide them.

Facilitating Learning Through Environmental Design

An optimal learning environment is one in which participants are not afraid of failure. We don’t want them to consider practice a place to prove themselves, but somewhere to learn and improve. We want them to see mistakes as learning opportunities — to feel comfortable getting things wrong and receiving support or feedback.

First, this means creating environments centred upon trust: coaches must build relationships with the young people they work with, and demonstrate that they care about them as people, not just athletes; athletes should not fear the consequences of bad results or performances, but feel empowered to take risks and try new things; and success should not be measured in outcomes, but in terms of intentions and effort.

Coaches can reinforce this culture by redefining success — both for athletes, and for parents who may be watching from the sidelines — so that hard work and long-term development are prioritised over short-term outcomes in competitions or on gameday. A shared understanding of these priorities will alleviate the pressure felt by some athletes and, once more, help them to overcome the fear of making mistakes and avoid frustration or loss of confidence when they do.

Additional Advice for Coaches and Parents

Avoid negative self-talk: remain calm, and be honest, when you fail

Whether we’re a coach or a parent, being open about our own failures, and staying relaxed when we confront them, is key to modelling good behaviours for the young people who look up to us. If they see us treating failure as a learning opportunity, and not letting it negatively impact our emotions, they’re more likely to do the same.

Support others when they don’t succeed

Remind them that failure is okay, provided we react positively. Reassuring other people — whether athletes, parents, fellow coaches, or our own partners or kids — not only sets positive examples, but helps to encourage a wider, societal change in attitudes towards failure.

Don’t be afraid to seek support when you fail

Fellow coaches, parents, partners, and other peers can all be invaluable sources of support if we have failed in a particular endeavour. Once again, we should be open when we make mistakes, and not be afraid to be vulnerable or seek help.

Attempt to change the narrative

Over time, we can change traditional attitudes towards failure. Consider the prevailing culture and how it might be challenged — and discuss it. How many people do you know who might also benefit from changing their approach to failure?

In Summary

  • We must move beyond a fixation on performance-based outcomes in order to help athletes with failure.
  • Increasing research shows the value of failure as an educational tool.
  • Sport provides excellent opportunities for young people to experience failure and build resilience in safe environments.
  • Fear-free coaching environments, centred upon trust, are key to helping athletes form healthy attitudes to failure.
  • We should endeavour to help young people form growth mindsets, whereby they respond positively to adversity, and identify hard work as the driver of improvement.
  • We can redefine success for athletes, parents, and coaches in order to prioritise effort and long-term development over short-term outcomes.
  • As adults, we should model the responses to failure we want to encourage in young people. This will set a positive example, while also facilitating a wider cultural shift in the perception of failure.

Image Source: RBFried from Getty Images Signature

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