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Do We Teach Athletes How to Fail?



Over the past few weeks, I have had several new clients who have brought up an interesting issue. The topic: How to react to failure? One of these clients, a high school basketball player, claimed he has always played on winning teams, and now, for the first time, he is playing on a team with a losing record. I met with both the athletes and his parents, and they all mentioned how his teams have always had winning records, from grade school all the way until this year in high school. Several years ago, I consulted with a major league baseball player, who had the same issue.

He had always been extremely successful at every level of baseball from Little League all the way through the minor leagues. However, during his rookie season as a major league baseball player, his performance was well below the expectations that both he had as well as the team he was playing for. In our discussions, he shared with me that he had never worried about failing, because he had always been one of the best, if not the best player on his teams. Now, as a prominent major league rookie, he had to deal with long stretches of failing, something he had never been faced with before, nor knew how to handle.


So how do we handle failing? Obviously, everyone has to learn how to deal with this issue at some point in his or her life. Whether it is in sports, in school, or in social situations we will all fail. It might be at a sporting event, on a test in school or in a relationship. I believe that one of the most important jobs a coach has is to be able to teach your athletes about this topic. The first thing I would suggest a coach should do is to talk with his team about both success and failure, that they are results and that both can happen any time you play a sporting event. I think a coach should tell his athletes that failure will happen, it is part of sports and that everyone will face it. Many coaches fail to handle this issue because they want and expect their teams and athletes to succeed. Often, coaches get upset when their teams fail and consequently, that translates down to the athletes. In turn, they get upset as well, because they will model the coach’s behavior. I believe a coach should discuss with his team how even Hall of Fame athletes have failed throughout their careers. Michael Jordan made 50% of his shots. That means he also missed 50% of his shots. A baseball Hall of Famer usually has a batting average over 300. That means that three times out of ten, they got a hit, but seven times out of ten they made an out.


One of the best ways for athletes to learn about failing is to learn to embrace it and accept it. I feel coaches should teach young athletes as much about succeeding as well as failing. What I have found over my 32 years working as a sport psychologist is that many coaches don’t talk with their athletes about failure. They are often so focused on what they need to do to succeed that failure is often overlooked. My suggestion is that you talk with your athletes about how to react to failure both emotionally and intellectually. Discuss with them how they feel when they strike out or miss an easy putt on the golf course. But also, talk with them about how to react to it. By learning to not be afraid when failure occurs, I believe an athlete will develop better coping mechanisms to come back from it. Ask your athletes what they are thinking when they fail. Do negative thoughts start to take over and does their self-confidence start to decrease? Help them to develop mental coping mechanisms to be able to rebound from failing and to not be afraid of it. The more you discuss it, and emphasize that it is something every athlete has to deal with, and that it isn’t something they should fear, the greater the chance that it will not become a barrier to their success.

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