Failure Is a Key Element in Player Development
Today’s topic was a suggestion from Tim Husted, who was the founder and guiding force behind the Danes fastpitch softball program, which gave players in Wisconsin and Minnesota the opportunity to play at the highest levels. Tim knows a thing or two about developing players so they can continue their careers in college, having done so for many young ladies while the program was active.
Tim was commenting on my post “Accuracy Without Speed = Batting Practice,” saying essentially that too many parents and coaches these days are focused on achieving short-term success rather working toward longer-term greatness. But, he added, it also shows up in parents being afraid to let their kids fail because they don’t understand that failure is an essential component of developing great players.
I know, it sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? No parent likes to see their kid(s) fail.
Our hearts bleed for them, and our kids’ pain becomes our pain – only amplified. It can be particularly debilitating for parents who are living vicariously through their kids’ sports careers.
The result is we do whatever we can to help our kids avoid failure, and the negative feelings associated with it.
Sometimes that means an “everybody gets a trophy” approach. Which I personally believe is ok at the younger ages to reward participation, but not after about the age of 10, and then only in rec leagues.
Sometimes that means jumping from team to team to find a starting spot rather than competing for one. There are definitely times when leaving a particular team is the right decision, such as when all positions are set and there is no opportunity to compete for a starting job.
That happens more than people like to admit too. But leaving in lieu of working hard is not a good solution.
And sometimes it means disgruntled parents starting their own teams or agreeing to coach with the express purpose of making their kid the star, whether it’s deserved or not.
Here’s the reality, however: failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s pretty rare to find anyone who is successful as an adult who did not face some level of failure earlier in his or her life.
Amanda Scarborough often talks about how early in her career she was not at the top of the pitching depth chart on her travel and high school teams. One of the all-time greats, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Lisa Fernandez, says she walked 20 batters in her first pitching outing and was told by a well-known pitching coach in California that she’d “never be a pitcher.” Many other greats in all walks of life have similar backstories.
The thing is, they didn’t let failure or disappointment define them. Instead, they learned from it and used it as fuel.
This is what coaches, and especially parents, need to understand. Failure isn’t a bad thing. It’s an essential part of the learning process.
People who succeed all the time (if there is such a thing) don’t learn how to overcome obstacles. They aren’t driven to hone their skills to improve. They don’t gain the mental toughness required to play at the highest level.
The pain of failure drives us to not want to feel that way again. Which either means we stop doing the activity or we work to ensure (to the best of our abilities) that it doesn’t happen again.
And that’s where the development comes in. Failure doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It means you aren’t good enough right now.
But that can change. While your DNA, which defines your base athletic ability, is what it is, mental and physical skills can be developed.
As a team coach and an instructor I’ve worked with many, many kids who didn’t start out as superstars, or even competent players for that matter. But with guidance and dedication they went on to pass more naturally gifted players in terms of performance on the field. And I know many coaches, including Tim, who have similar stories.
Failure helps point out the flaws in your game so you can work on them. It drives us to achieve more than success alone ever will.
Good players like to work on their strengths. Great players prefer to work on their weaknesses.
Then there’s the idea of failure as fuel, which I mentioned earlier. Sometimes failing at something is just the kick in the pants we as humans need to drive us to improve beyond what we may have done otherwise.
I know this from personal experience. My first year as a travel ball coach my oldest daughter’s team was very successful, winning the bulk of our games along with taking first place in the highly competitive travel league we were a part of.
I remember feeling really good about myself as a coach – until I found out half the team was leaving to join a new team in our organization coached by the dad of a girl who was more popular than my daughter. I was shocked and disappointed.
But rather than quit, or whine about it, I took that failure and used it to drive me to become the best coach I could be. I took classes, read books, watched videos, talked to other coaches, and did everything I could to become so good that no player would ever even consider leaving.
While I can’t say I fully achieved that goal – there will always be some attrition, and there’s always more to learn – it definitely made me a much better coach and put me on the path that I still follow today. I’m not sure the same would have happened had that first team all stayed.
Another benefit failure brings is that it makes success that much sweeter and more satisfying. It’s difficult to appreciate triumph if you’ve never experienced defeat.
Not to mention if you are afraid of failure you’re more likely to play weaker competition to ensure you’ll win. I’ve known teams like that.
Their coaches play teams they know they can beat, thinking a better won-loss record makes them look like better coaches. But all it really does is stunt the development of their players because those players aren’t being challenged.
If you’re going undefeated in every tournament and posting up 80-3 run differentials you’re not a great team. You’re playing in the wrong tournaments.
A 60% – 70% win rate will do far more to ensure player development than a closet full of trophies, medals, plaques and rings.
The bottom line is that while failure is painful, it can be a good kind of pain – like what you feel after a particularly grueling workout. It’s not something that should be feared and avoided at all costs.
Instead, it should be embraced as part of the learning process.
Failure doesn’t have to be a dead end. In fact, it can be the starting point for something much, much better.
The choice is yours.
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