Mar 14, 2022 • 4 min read
Fear of failure looks and feels differently for every athlete. For some athletes, worrying about messing up can translate into playing timid and holding back from their ultimate potential. For other athletes the pressure to be perfect can lead to fear of what others may think.
Giving permission to fail and using it as a learning experience and not a consequence is the key to creating a safe space for young athletes to develop. Without moments like not making a team, missing a penalty kick, or not getting into a school, there wouldn’t be anything to compare to the glory of getting into your dream school, scoring the winning penalty kick, and making the varsity squad.
Here are five ways you can help normalize failure within your team and organization:
One of the best ways for a coach to help players develop is to talk openly about the development process. Competition brings about a lot of pressure for athletes and coaches to be perfect, so making sure to talk about the ebbs and flows of this process is important. The best lessons typically come from the hardest games and losses, so making sure to utilize this time after the game to focus on the learning moments is key. Being honest with your players about what went well and what the group can improve on is a constructive way of discussing “mistakes” or moments the players could see as “failures.”
We’ve all heard stories, experienced it first hand or seen movies of the coach with the whistle making players run after every missed layup, every bad touch or missed tackle. While the intention may be good, often the best way to get players to freely express themselves on the playing field is to give feedback in a constructive way. Mistakes will happen, so addressing them and normalizing them positively impacts the players.
The US Soccer Coaching pathway follows a play-practice-play approach. This methodology encourages coaches to start sessions with a scrimmage or small-sided games, progress into the practice phase and finish with another play phase. By starting a practice playing it encourages the players to take risks, do what they love, and play freely. After that part of the session is over, players have likely been able to express themselves, get energized and prepared to build on the scrimmage in a more drill-focused practice phase. When players jump right into playing, they are able to do what they love without the pressure of a “real game” or “all eyes on me” practice session. Using this phase to talk about the waves of the game and then execute it throughout the next two phases is a constructive way to normalize making mistakes and moving forward.
One of the best ways to normalize fear is to encourage your players to confront the skill that feels intimidating. Most of the time fear is a thought that often passes, but in order to get that you have to approach it head on. As a coach, push your players to challenge themselves. Give positive acknowledgment when you see the athlete trying a new move or something they expressed as a fear initially. Encouraging your players to try by reminding them that you’d rather see them try than not at all will allow them to keep tackling their personal hurdles.
Reflecting is a great way to talk about setbacks, fears and goals. As a coach, it’s important to address moments where your team could have been better, but using the reflection period after practice or after a game shows normal management not reactive emotions. It’s easy to react in sports. Games bring about all kinds of emotions, and so can practices. But, by addressing the difficult moments in a reflection practice the entire team can grow and learn vs. feel attacked or called out in a high-pressure game situation. Using reflection is also a good way to get the players comfortable doing their own self-assessment. This will help them handle setbacks in a productive way vs a reactive way.
Sharing moments that didn’t go as planned, confronting fear head on, encouraging free-play and self-expression are some of the ways we can normalize failure and give athletes permission to try, try, and try again.
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