How did you fail today?
Ask your players that question. It can be a useful and entertaining exercise. It might take a while for some players to open up and admit their mistakes, minor humiliations, and embarrassing moments. And you might have to admit a failure of your own to get things rolling.
But as soon as someone starts, the confessions come rapid-fire. They will eventually talk about fumbling on the one-yard line, air balls at the worst-possible moments, or scoring a goal in the wrong goal.
Then ask, “What did you learn from it?” The lesson is the part they tend to overlook.
Recognizing failure is a necessary element of improvement, and we don’t use it enough.
In any competitive environment – business, sports, school, life – there seems to be an over-abundance of blame, a pre-occupation with fault. We ask who was responsible for a mistake. We investigate who caused the problem, but it’s not until much later in the process that we ask how it happened and what needs to be done to fix it. We tend to find it more important to place blame than to solve the problem.
“Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures,” states an article in the Harvard Business Review. “Every child learns at some point that admitting failure means taking the blame. That is why so few organizations have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized.”
Avoidance of blame – even in a practice setting – creates a tense atmosphere not conducive to improvement. Players, it seems, are equally afraid of failure and blame, stifling creativity and producinng safe, unspectacular players.
In the study done by the Harvard Business Review for the article mentioned above, executives were asked to consider a Spectrum a Reasons for Failure. Listed on the spectrum in descending order from “blameworthy” to “praiseworthy” are Deviance, Inattention, Lack of Ability, Process Inadequacy, Task Completion, Process Complexity, Uncertainty, Hypothesis testing, and Exploratory testing.
The executives are then asked to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy.
The answer is between two and five percent. Asked how many are treated as blameworthy, the executives say 70 to 75 percent. The business leaders learn that “a failure resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generates valuable information may actually be praiseworthy.”
Parents Get in the Way
Tisha Venturini Hoch, a World Cup and Olympic Gold medal winning soccer player, operates soccer camps with former teammates Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly. They travel around the country working with a variety of skill levels
“A lot of parents try so hard to make sure their kids never fail, the kids don’t know how to handle it when they do,” she said. “We’ve had kids break down crying when they can’t perform a skill.”
As a result, kids are being encouraged to not even try. Coaches see it in practice all the time. Most players have a comfort zone they are unwilling to leave when there’s something on the line, even something seemingly minor like how they are judged or perceived by their teammates or peers.
Unless prodded or forced to try something risky and new, those players will never realize their limits. Players, especially young athletes, need to know what it feels like to push toward their actual limits, instead of shying away from the point at which they believe they will fail.
Thomas Edison didn’t seem to have a comfort zone. He learned a great deal in his life as an inventor from failing and finding new limits to his capabilities. Edison had over 1,000 patents and not all turned out to be as brilliant as the battery or lightbulb. He did, after all, invent the electric pen.
“I have not failed,” he said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Tell your players that success and failure are not opposites. They are, in fact, related. Failure is a path to success, just a part of the journey to the finished product.
Bill Gates said, “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” What if we flipped that around – “It’s important to learn from success, but it’s also important to celebrate failure.”
Maybe we should give a Failure of the Week Award, and discuss what we can learn from it, what could have been done differently. But make sure you, as the coach, win the award from time to time.
If success is the goal, we can’t ignore failure. As Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
So, encourage your players to fail enthusiastically.