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Beware of 'Cotton Wool Coaching!'

Avg: 4.83 / 5 (4votes)

What is cotton wool coaching I hear you ask?

Well we’ve all heard of the expression, ‘she’s wrapped up in cotton wool,’ usually used to describe an individual (often a child) who is perceived to be 'overly protected’ by their parent.  

'Cotton wool coaching' refers to being overly protective of your athletes, by being reluctant or frightened to expose them to failure and risk. 

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not referring to exposing athletes to DANGER, that would be negligent, but instead exposing them to failure (if there is such a thing) and the fantastic learning opportunities it provides. 

You see, failure is rich in learning opportunities, but only to those that reflect on past performance. Failure is in fact CRITICAL to success. You cannot have success without failure, so why do we protect our athletes from it so often?

Here are some ways that coaches are often quick to protect their athlete short term, without respecting the lessons and learning opportunities that could be taken longer term:

  1. Entering athletes for competitions where they are unlikely to lose or not rank highly.
  2. Not providing honest post-performance feedback which will help the athlete improve because it may upset them.
  3. Not exposing an athlete to pressurised training environments through fear that it will disrupt their mindset and comfort balance (exactly what it is intended to do!) 
  4. Not playing fun competitions within your training sessions as not everybody can win, or it may upset somebody who loses. 
  5. Making excuses on behalf of your athletes as to why things didn’t go to plan, as opposed to having honest discussions which will help improve future performance. Coaches who make excuses for their athletes will develop athletes who make excuses for themselves. That’s a bad place to be. 

I am sure like me you have come across athletes with '100% syndrome,’ these are athletes that cannot cope with performing poorly or inconsistently and whilst you may think this is a positive trait to have, it can also be quite risky. 

Becoming demoralised and having low self esteem through poor performance simply fuels distractive emotions, and may not assist the athlete with focusing on the corrections required. This can be fuelled further by a coach who is also responding emotionally to the performances, and not rationally. This combination is dangerous

Striving for perfection is not a bad thing, it’s a great trait, but athletes must understand that the path to success is not a linear process. There will inevitably be bumps, roadblocks and diversions on the way. These hurdles should be perceived positively, safe with the knowledge that adversity can develop resilience. 

Resilience and grit are two excellent qualities for an athlete, training the determination to persevere through inevitable adversity and confront fear or uncomfortable situations.

Athletes that 'break' under physical and mental stress have capped potential. Durability is far more important that ability.

Just like it is unlikely that your athletes are naturally competent to perform a double back somersault without prior coaching, it is unlikely they will have the mental tools to deal and confront failure without prior coaching and guidance. To a child, failure is scary (and to many adults too!)

The mental strength required to face failure and adversity positively requires proactive coaching. In the same way you would break down a technical skill into chunks and deliver it ‘little and often,’ you should do the same here too. Drip feeding mental training happens daily, with the messages you are telling your athletes, the review processes you use following competition performances and your approach to facilitating failure in training.

Yes, that’s right … FACILITATING FAILURE. Actively encouraging it, creating an environment where it is inevitable, natural, and most importantly acceptable. If you shout at your athletes when they make a mistake, you are not accepting failure, you are critical of it. That will not help an athlete, that will just increase their fear of future poor performance and contribute to 100% syndrome. 

Some of you might be reading this and feeling a little skeptical, perhaps curious as to how you can maintain high standards whilst accepting failure. Embracing failure is not about lowering your standards. The bar remains high, but your process for getting there is different. Let’s look at a fictional example:


I am working with a young athlete who is performing a new skill; a ‘stalder’ on bars. The athlete, (let’s call her ‘Lucy,’) falls three times in a row attempting the skill. This is a skill she has performed in the previous days absolutely fine. There appears to be no reason why she shouldn’t be able to perform the skill successfully on this day also. 

Scenario/Coaching Response 1

‘Lucy this is ridiculous, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do this, drop your hips harder and snap faster under the bar.’ 

Scenario/Coaching Response 2

I ask the athlete a question; 

‘Why don’t you think you are able to get around the bar?’ 

Lucy and I have a conversation about it. She tells me her opinion, which is not the correct answer, but it doesn’t matter. 

‘OK, what do you need to do to fix that?’ 

Lucy answers. 

‘Great, give it a go and see if it works.'

It doesn’t work. She did what she said, but what she said wasn’t the correct answer.

‘OK, so that didn’t work, can you remember the coaching points that we were talking about the last few days?’

Lucy details the coaching points which she remembers and understands. She applies the points and the skill is successful.

Scenario 1 and 2 delivered the same result. Scenario 2 actually took longer BUT:

Scenario 1 motivated through fear, the worst kind of motivation.

Scenario 1 didn’t encourage Lucy to think for herself.

Scenario 1 was critical of failure. 

Scenario 2 empowers the athlete to think and REFLECT for themselves, and holds the athlete accountable for their decisions.

Scenario 2 builds the athlete - coach relationship by talking to Lucy like an adult, and having a conversation with her.

Scenario 2 accepted failure as part of the process to get to the correct result. There was little consequence of failure. 

Scenario 2 didn’t require me to raise my words or voice. 

Let’s look at another fictional scenario.


Lucy has a competition in a few weeks time. It is a major competition for her age group and she is performing her routines well in training. She is building confidence with performing her routines consistently and is showing high self esteem.

Scenario 1

What we’re doing seems to be working and I don’t want to disrupt this so we continue to train in exactly the same manner towards the event. 

Scenario 2

I (the coach) understand that training within the confides of a home gym is vastly different than a pressurised training or competition environment. Lucy’s current performances are great, but I need to apply pressure and challenge her consistency to mimic competitive environments and stimulus which she will experience on competition day. I decide on a competition preparation strategy which intentionally puts Lucy out of her comfort zone, knowing that it will likely disrupt performance:

  1. Our next practise competition will be performed in another local gym to us, on equipment and surroundings Lucy is unfamiliar with.
  2. Warm up length will be minimised prior to performing her routines.
  3. Lucy will be required to perform routines on consecutive days in the gym, when she may be tired from her previous days performances.
  4. Routines will be performed in various other conditions, some in silence, some with a noisy environment, some without a warm up, some with a long wait. 

I know that scenario 2 will result in several errors in Lucy’s competition routines and superficially this may appear to knock Lucy’s self esteem and confidence towards the event, BUT in parallel to this strategy I am educating Lucy on WHY we are going through the process and what she and I should expect on its journey. Lucy would benefit significantly from the pressurised training scenarios and profit from this when she eventually presents her routines in an uncomfortable environment - competition day!

Sometimes, you need to unwrap the cotton wool. You may perceive it as ‘tough love;’ being cruel to be kind. I don’t think it is cruel. It’s ‘coaching', and the coaches job is to prepare an athlete physically, mentally, emotionally for their performances in and out of the gym. 

The key to profiting from failure is the reflections that follow. If you don't reflect on your losses or your mistakes, little is learnt from them. You have to make a few wrong decisions to know what a right decision is. A little trial and error.

Are you educating your athletes to reflect and learn from their mistakes? Are you facilitating these discussions with them?

There are thousands of high achieving athletes and individuals who have stories of failure and adversity prior to achieving greatness. If I were you, I would be exploiting these and using these as fantastic examples of how even the world’s greats fail. We’ve all read the famous Michael Jordon quote:

'I've missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’

What a great quote to form a discussion with your athletes.

Fail and fail often.


Don’t make excuses, make progress.

Have a great week.


PS. A fantastic book I have recently read is called ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed, author of ‘Bounce.’ The book is dedicated to the importance of failure when striving for success, and emphasises how important self reflection is in order to profit from failure. CHECK IT OUT HERE 

If you enjoyed this you can find all my other ConnectedCoaches blogs here.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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Comments (10)

Great post Nick - this is something I have been looking at a lot recently (and was going to do a post around it but you have beaten me to it!!) as I have been reading The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. Aimed mainly as a parenting angle, but there are strong similarities for coaching and teaching. It covers the work by others such as Deci and Dweck and looks at how you parent, how you incentify, how you develop competence and confidence and how children learn to acheive.

I think your point around 'facilitating failure' is excellent, and the need to reflect is key. I will be shortly starting Gary Klein's Seeing What Others Don't around how we gain insights …

You might like this video on his thoughts -
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There is also a chapter in Michael Calvin's book, Living on the Volcano, called the Falliacy of Failure, which makes an interesting read
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Read that, amazing read!
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Thanks for the comments and suggestions Jon I'll add them to my reading list!
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Thanks Nick, very much along the lines of a CPD seminar I am leading in a couple of weeks time.As part of that we are going to be looking at appropriate 'road blocks' we can put into training.
'Black Box Thinking' arrived in the post this morning = timing!
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It's a great book Lynn, let me know what you think!
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An excellent, serendipitous post for me.

I've been exploring the idea of an agitated player, based on some other coaches prompts. This really helps crystallise some of my thoughts.

I was once in a development meeting in pro-rugby club and the agenda point was "honesty". The spectrum of opinion was enormous. That was over 10 years ago and my sense is that they haven't yet found an answer because:
1. Communication of "honesty" is extremely tough.
2. Vested interests means you have to hold your tongue - a star athlete might jump ship.
3. Managing up is harder than managing down.
4. Coaches need CPD in this area.
5. Coaches need to think about the athletes LONG TERM future, yet are often on short-term contracts themselves.

Looking forward to reading up (or revisiting) some of this reading list.

Finally, I wonder whether failure is the wrong word. Perhaps if we thought about the expression: "a great challenge that I nearly achieved", rather "I failed to make the putt for a 62"...
Avg: 4.05 / 5 (1votes)
Following on from the brilliant cotton wool coaching

This is based upon Rebecca English Lecturer in Education, Queensland University of Technology

What’s the best way to coach a child? It’s a question that has provoked the publication of numerous books, and seen authors race to coin the next quirky name for a new style of coaching.

¥ Tiger coaching, who are seen as pushing their children to succeed according to their terms.
¥ Helicopter coaching, who take over every aspect of the child’s life.
¥ Snowplough coaching, who remove obstacles to make life easier for the child.
¥ Free-range coaching, who allow children a great deal of freedom, often just baby sitting.
¥ Attachment coaching, who are relaxed but set limits in line with the child’s needs and character.

There are generally understood to be four typologies:
¥ Authoritarian coaches are the authority in their child’s life. They set the rules and say “jump” and their child responds “how high?”. (Most similar to tigers.)
¥ Permissive coaches are lax about their expectations, don’t set standards and don’t ask much of their children.
¥ Neglectful coaches are uninterested in their children and unwilling to be an active part of the child’s life.
¥ Authoritative coaching are highly demanding while being highly responsive.
One of the major criticisms of these typologies is how culturally determined they are.
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So what does research say about the pros and cons of each of these styles?

Coaches that are Tigers
Who coined it? Amy Chua popularised this name in her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua describes tiger parents, often seen in Chinese families, as superior to Western parents. Some Chinese parents and coaches assume strength and don’t shy away from calling their children names. Tiger Coaches assume their children owe them respect because they’ve got high results with others and expect their athletes to repay them by being obedient. The basic tenant of Confucius philosophy. “Berbatov stated he has lost respect for Sir Alex Ferguson.”
Why choose this style: Tiger mothers (and coaches) are, as Chua attests, socialised to be this way by their cultural background. Thus, when they successfully demand an hour of practice it’s part of their cultural background that the child complies. Some Western parents and coaches will have a hard time emulating the years of acculturation that leads to that moment.
Coaches who follow Chua may do so because they want their child to be successful by results only. It may be they hold deep insecurities about future failure. They are most likely authoritarian.
Cons: Children can struggle to function in daily life or in new settings, which may lead to depression, anxiety and poor social skills. At premiership football level, it’s been known for the player to be institutionalized in their dependence.
Coaches of this style tend to produce unrealistic expectation athletes. But again it’s culturally dependent.

Coaches that are Helicopters
Who coined it? Psychologist Foster Cline and education consultant Jim Fay coined the phrase in 1990 in their book: Parenting with Love and Logic. They described helicopters as being confused about the difference between responsibility and saving children from themselves. Another name for helicopter parenting is “over-parenting”. Just as over-coaching can be a problem.
Why choose this style: These coaches are likely to be scared for their child’s future harm, perhaps like tiger parents. They may not trust their child’s ability to navigate the world. By hovering around they may think children will be inoculated against pain. At it’s worse, it makes them coach dependent, sometimes feeding the coaches need for loyalty and ownership of the athlete. These coaches are probably a mix or authoritarian and permissive typologies, but there is scant research on the style.
Cons: Children can lack emotional resilience and independence, which can affect them into adulthood. Being a child of a helicopter coach may lead to an inability to control behaviour. Coaches with this style produce tantrum athletes. You step in to rescue your child’s every struggle; you are over-involved in your child’s development; you can’t stop watching over them and constantly making excuses for their tantrums or even seeing it as the thing that gives them a competitive edge, such as the footballer Suarez.

Snowplough or bulldozer coaches (this is now the most common parenting style amongst affluent parents).
You push all obstacles out of your child’s way. Perhaps you’ve bullied, nagged or bribed the head coach or selectors to get your child a place on the team.
Who coined it? It appears the term was coined by former high school teacher David McCullough. In 2015, he published a book, You Are Not Special, in which he implores parents to back off and let their children fail.
Why choose this style: Maybe you think your athlete is exceptional, or worse they’re too great to fail, and that’s why you’ve identified with this style. In terms of typology, there are aspects of authoritarianism in the mix as you demand success (after all, you’ve bulldozed all obstacles from the child’s path). However, unfortunately they also score highly for permissiveness.
What the research says: There’s no empirical evidence either way for the snowplough approach. However, there’s a lot of blog posts and media articles devoted to the topic. That being said, the pros and cons are probably similar to helicopter parents. Coaches that use this style produce non-resilient athletes and it may also foster a sense of entitlement or narcissism in the child.

Free-range coaches
Who coined it? Lenore Skenazy The book was about fighting the perception the world was getting more dangerous, an antidote to control freaks or cotton-wool coaches. Skemazy’s blog attempts to connect parents with like-minded others who agree that children don’t need safety jackets and helmets in order to safely experience their independence.
Why choose this style: Psychologists and experts suggest this style is a backlash against anxiety-driven, risk-averse child rearing. While Skenazy cites responses from parents (and lawmakers) who think the approach is neglectful, it is probably more aligned with the authoritative typology, where parents believe in teaching children to look after themselves, through self empowerment.
Cons: Problems with this style centre on the legal aspects of the approach, coaches and parents must reasonably ensure their child is properly looked after. Coaches with this style tend to produce athletes with too much freedom leading to inefficient unorthodox technique. And coaching ends up baby sitting or a glorified ball machine, water boy and bag carrier.

Attachment or gentle coaches (common with cotton wool coaching)
Who coined it? The philosophy is based on the work of psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth on attachment theory. The work began with Bowlby in the 1950s. Bowlby also worked with Ainsworth and Ainsworth did some famous experiments with young children.
Attachment theory suggests that children who develop strong bonds with parents/caregivers in the early years will have happier, healthier relationships as they age. The term was then popularised by a book dubbed the “baby bible” written by the Sears family in 1993.
Why coaches choose this style: Parents may choose this style because they want their children to be positive about themselves and their relationships with others as they mature. Attachment parenting is associated with the authoritative typology. These parents try to balance high expectations with empathy and this is associated with the best outcomes. Coaches who smile lots tend to have more loyal and compliant athletes.
Cons: It can be conflated with permisive parenting. It is also associated, somewhat contrarily, with over-parenting, as some suggest it is a name for mothers who can’t let their child go. Coaches with this style can produce non-competitive humanistic athletes.
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Carol Dweck's Ted talk is well worth a watch/listen.

In place of 'failure', she uses the word 'yet' to emphasise that learning is not complete, but that a task or target CAN be achieved

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Excellent points made on this fundamental way in which we all learn. Just watch a young child's curiosity where they find out what they can and can't do. Preventing a mistake (through the knowledge and experience a coach has) actually inhibits or holds back learning. My friend and colleague (from Australia) has written a worthwhile book on the subject called 'Mistakes Worth Making'. It is a sound a thought provoking read for any coach.

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For me, this is a situation we find ourselves in when swim coaching where parents will not enter their athlete into meets if they feel they will not 'win'. My view is and has been since I started coaching that there is no such thing as a bad swim except the one you don't learn from so, a huge pb swum with awful technique is a lost opportunity if the athlete does not see the pitfalls while a swim where everything falls apart but the athlete comes out, acknowledges it was not great technically but tells me what they are going to work on to avoid it happening again is a much better learning situation. (I don't do divas either :)). sadly some parents will not enter athletes in anything further than 50m events (which is all the local schools swim) or in events they don't perceive as their 'best events (I am talking young and intermediate age groupers who are not yet fully grown or fully skilled) thus preventing them experiencing events which may, longer term, be far more suited for the individual. Or for example, the swimmer has a 'poor, in the opinion of the parent', race during a meet and the parent pulls them from the rest of the meet because 'She is not swimming well'. This exact instance happened to me this weekend an, needless to say I was not a happy coach, especially as the swimmer was quite 'ok' about what had happened. We live in a 'moneyed' area and the youngsters do not have to fight for anything in the same way as where I come from in South London.
I want to share this article on my and our club facebook page. Would that be ok?

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Thanks for your comments Geoff. You mention situations that are all too common! Please feel free to share as you see fit.

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Thanks, Nick

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