Helping Athletes Handle Mistakes and Failure
Updated: Nov 19, 2018
FAILURE is a huge part of sport. In many team sports, athletes fail far more than they succeed. In softball and baseball, for example, really good hitters fail to get a hit 70% of the time.
Sports provide an opportunity for kids to learn how to fail successfully, an important lesson considering life isn’t always easy. Failing successfully means learning how to view and use failure as a growth opportunity -- as motivation to work harder, persevere through difficulties and obstacles, take appropriate risks, and continually improve. However, my work with pre-college athletes as a mental skills and private pitching coach suggests many athletes do not know how to handle failure.
To verify my personal experience and observations, I asked several college coaches this summer what they viewed as mental toughness gaps among their pre-college recruits and collegiate athletes.
Without hesitation, an NCAA Division 1 assistant coach said, “This generation of athletes has no ability to work through mistakes. They can’t deal with failure -- and softball is a game of failure.” A veteran NCAA D1 head coach added, “Not catastrophizing everything. Any little failure is a complete catastrophe.” Another NCAA D2 head coach echoed this sentiment, “these athletes need help handling failure and not thinking their life is over because they made one mistake.”
It’s important to understandthat an athlete’s response to failure is a learned response. Athletes learn how to respond to mistakes and failure by experiencing and observing how adults respond to failure – their own and the athlete’s.
Athletes who haven’t learned how to deal with failure appropriately remain stuck in the last play, associate their athletic performance with personal self worth, or learn to fear failure.
Stuck in the Last Play
Many athletes cannot recover quickly after making a mistake. Their thoughts are stuck on the last play rather than focused on the next play. All too often, this results in making another mistake.
Athletes must learn how to work through mistakes effectively and develop a next play mindset. In next play mindset, athletes must OWN the mistake, LEARN from it, then LET IT GO.
OWNing a mistake means taking responsibility, not blaming someone or something else or coming up with a creative reason why the mistake happened.
Next, athletes must quickly analyze the mistake and LEARN from it. What did I do incorrectly? What will I do differently next time?
Then athletes must LET IT GO. The mistake or error is done - and there are no re-dos during competition. Athletes must LET IT GO, clear their minds, and re-focus on successfully making the next play.
I’m a Failure
As athletes move into adolescence and begin devoting more and more time and energy to their sport(s), many develop an “athlete identity.”Who they areas human beings becomes closely intertwined, or even lost in, what they do on the field or court. When this occurs, failures in sport can become interpreted as failure as a person.
Athletes begin thinking things like “My sport performance was poor today. Therefore, I am a failure and am worthless.” Mistakes and failures can feel catastrophic when they are associated with self worth.
Having a “terrible game” from a performance perspective does not mean an athlete is a terrible person. Young athletes must learn to separate sport performance from their personal self-worth. Their value as a person is not dependent on how well they perform in sport.
Rough performances happen in sport – and rough days happen in life. How athletes learn to respond to these rough days is what matters. They can quit, blame others, or make excuses. Or, they can learn from the mistake, make a plan to improve, and get back to work to get better.
Fear of Failure
Many athletes have learned to fear failure. They are afraid to take the risk needed to make an incredible play or make the big pitch needed to get out of a critical inning. They play safe.
Athletes learn to fear failure based on how important adults in their lives respond. Young athletes don’t want to disappoint their parents or coaches. They watch parents’ and coaches’ body language after they make a mistake and hear the disappointment and frustration in parents’ voices.
Some young athletes actually fear the car ride home after they don’t play well. After working with pre-college and college athletes for over 30 years, I can assure you that your athlete is well aware he or she didn’t play well. The coach likely already provided feedback, and re-hashing their performance in the car ride home is not going to help. Encouraging effort, attitude, and response to failure – three things that an athlete can totally control – is a much better strategy.
Help athletes process their mistakes or failure by asking questions rather than telling them what to do. Questions like “What did you learn? What will you do differently next time? How might you change your strategy next time?” will help athletes work through the mistake, problem solve, and begin viewing mistakes or failure as learning opportunities.
Some athletes fear being taken out of the game if they make a mistake. Athletes with this fear in their heads will be focused on not making a mistake rather than on successfully making a play. All too often, this negative focus results in another mistake.
If we want athletes to not be afraid to fail, we must remember to praise them for taking appropriate risks; “I loved your effort in diving for that ball in the gap to try to make a huge play. Next time, you’ll make that play and we’ll be celebrating.”
Responding to a risk positively is especially important when the risk didn't turn out well because the negative result of that decision will be embedded in the athlete’s memory, causing hesitation or tentativeness the next time.
Sport provides wonderful opportunities for athletes to learn how to use failure as motivation to work harder, persevere through difficulties and obstacles, take appropriate risks, and continually improve. But we have to seize these learning opportunities and help pre-college athletes make the connections.
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