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Helping children deal with failure | Coaching Children (Ages 5-12) | ConnectedCoaches

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Home » Groups » Coaching Children (Ages 5-12) » blogs » Blake Richardson » Don't use the F word: Helping children deal with failure
Coaching Children (Ages 5-12)

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Don't use the F word: Helping children deal with failure

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Dealing with failure

  • Everyone fails. It’s how you deal with failure that is important.
  • Performers can very often learn more from doing it wrong than by doing it right first time.
  • What matters most in children’s sport isn’t the result, it is how performers approach and learn from the challenges they face.
  • Negative language that reinforces the idea of failure increases the risk of dropout.
  • Actively seek out the positives in EVERY situation.

Sir James Dyson is the revered inventor of the world’s first revolutionary bagless vacuum cleaner. 

Much lauded by entrepreneurs, less so by sports coaches. However, you could argue, and with some justification, that he is deserving of luminary status in coaching circles too. 

Designing and building the Dual Cyclone Vacuum Cleaner was a labour of love 15 years in the making. He tried and failed 5126 times before his eureka moment. 

On swift reflection, ‘failed’ is the wrong word, and one that I doubt has ever entered Mr Dyson’s vocabulary. He would argue that he learnt something from every single one of his innumerable prototypes and that they were useful and necessary stepping stones towards nailing that final design. 

Fortune really did favour the bold in his case – to the tune of several billions of pounds as it turned out, as he went on to monopolise the market and hoover up the cash. 

But the lesson of resilience entwined in this story has real-life human value too. 

Failure is a part and parcel of life. It is going to happen. It’s how you deal with it that matters. 

There are countless sayings encouraging resilience and the need to fly in the face of failure, and sports coaches are probably accustomed to using most of them on a regular basis; from the generic, ‘Everyone makes mistakes’ and, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again,’ to the more sector-specific, ‘Training sessions should be a safe place to fail,’ ‘Coaches must make a success out of failure,’ and, ‘Trying and failing is all part of the process of becoming a better athlete.’ 

Failure is a taboo word in the coaching language of ConnectedCoaches member  Andrew Beaven , who knows the confidence-sapping impact the word, or the sentiment, can have if bandied around by a coach during sessions. 

Children can be their own worst critics, punishing themselves for perceived failure. At best, a coach throwing a few jabs their way will further dent their self-image. At worst, constant negative reinforcement could see them walk away from the team and fall out of love with sport altogether.  

So instead of dropping them from the starting line-up or moaning at the team after a substandard performance, look for the positives in every situation to boost flagging confidence.

Framework for improvement 

Freelance coach Andrew works two days a week at the MCC Academy at Lord’s (mainly with groups of under-eights, down to as young as three), one day a week at Chelmsford at the home of Essex CCC (one-to-ones with adults and aspiring county age group players) and is coach of the under-13s team at Regent’s Park CC. 

He firmly believes that it is how children approach and learn from the challenges they face, not the outcomes of individual drills and games, that matters. 

‘If in your practice sessions, you have developed beforehand a shared philosophy with your players that learning how to get better is the overriding aim, then, while accepting failure in a game is hard, you can at least come back to the player and say, "Okay, what went well? What didn’t go quite so well? And what can you do better next time?”’ says Andrew. 

‘Can I “share a philosophy” with a three year old? Easily. Not verbally, of course, but by actions.

'Dropped the ball? Then chase after it and pick it up before it rolls away. Can’t catch a ball on the first bounce? Catch it on the second bounce, then have the coach celebrate that achievement. And always, “Wow, well done. Can you do that again?” Success is good; now repeat; make it harder if the game is too easy – one bounce, clap, catch. 

‘If you’ve established that’s what you do, this thought process to how you perform – and that goes for any player of any age – then you’ve got a framework for how to deal with failure.’ 

As Sir James would testify to, sometimes, players learn more from doing it wrong than by doing it right first time. The key is for the coach to ask the right questions when something goes awry. 

Focus on future solutions, in other words, not on past failures. 

‘Even if you’re out first ball or dropped a sitter, the coach and player should be asking the question, “What went well?”’ says Andrew.

'"Well, I turned up on time, my kit was ready, and I was prepared.” You know you’ve got something there to work on then. It’s a positive. 

‘“What could have gone better?” “I didn’t know the bowler was a spinner.” “Well, maybe you should have been watching him when he was bowling his first over.”

'Turn every unsuccessful outcome into an opportunity to do better next time.’ 

The power of positive questioning 

Andrew says it is important for the players to know that, should they perform badly, they will not face the prospect of being dropped from the batting line-up or bowling line-up, or left out of the playing squad altogether. 

This could seriously damage a player’s self-confidence. 

Andrew gives more examples of how to tackle a situation where a player has quickly gone from revelling in a purple patch to battling a bout of the blues. 

‘It should never be, “You have failed three times, you won’t play next week,” or, ‘You haven’t taken a wicket, you won’t bowl next week.” You might tell them they will bat lower down the order or bowl later, but they need to know they will always be in the game.’ 

By playing the role of question master – What can you do next time? What can you work on? Can you watch someone else in the team being successful? Can you watch someone on the television to pick up tips? – you are focusing their minds on the positives and steering them clear of a cycle of blame they might find it difficult to break free of. 

‘Until you get to a professional level where it matters, and your job could be on the line, you have to zero in on the idea that everything is about being better,’ says Andrew. ‘If you’ve succeeded this week, how are you going to be even better next week?’ 

And if they continue to fall short of expectations, remember that the reasons for playing sport are different for different people. 

‘I’ve played cricket with people for 30 years, and some people struggle to get it, but they keep turning out because what they are good at is enjoying themselves and being sociable,’ says Andrew. ‘They help other people when they don’t do as well. You can find a niche for every player. 

‘It’s unlikely someone who is playing that often has absolutely no ability whatsoever so you find a learning curve. At one point, they will take a blinding catch, or catch the ball smack in the middle of the bat, and it’s going to fly to the boundary. The juniors, particularly, will celebrate and sometimes over-celebrate, but it’s worth waiting for.’ 

Give me an ooh, give me an aah! 

Andrew says he is perfectly happy to celebrate a near miss in a simple game of bowling at the stumps. The players like it, he likes it, and it seems to work is his view on the matter. The view of his fellow coaches: ‘They think it’s bonkers.’ 

‘We do a bowling game. Bowl and hit the stumps. Very obvious,’ he explains. ‘If you hit the stumps, you are successful. If you get close, you have actually failed because the game is to hit the stumps. But I’ll be shouting “Ooh! Aah! Ooh!” if the ball goes close.’ 

While it may sound, to those in close proximity, that Andrew is belting out the classic Gina G dance anthem – ‘Ooh aah, just a little bit, ooh aah, a little bit more’ – there’s method in his madness. 

‘We will count the “oohs”,’ he says. “Obviously, if you hit the stumps, you’ve won, but it’s difficult to hit the stumps three times so you can do a countback on the oohs. It’s a way of encouraging the players not to think they’ve only succeeded if they’ve had a perfect result. 

‘If it was close, you’ve only got to be that tiny bit closer. It doesn’t say risk and failure, but if you can get it to a point where the players are oohing and aahing, that’s what I’m aiming for.’ 

I ask him if this could be construed as dispensing false praise and may, in some eyes, be seen as counterproductive. 

‘But five oohs don’t equal a hit,’ he counters. ‘They only help you if everyone’s got the same number of hits. Success is still hitting the stumps, but a near miss is better than no near misses.’ 

It is a fine line that coaches must be aware of, as raising self-esteem by praising failing efforts can lead to confusion in players’ minds as to what a good performance actually looks like. 

Over time, it could stifle their determination to improve as they become accustomed to settling for second best, happy in the knowledge they will never receive any criticism – a theory Nick Ruddock explores in greater detail in his excellent blog post ‘Beware of cotton wool coaching’, which refers to being overly protective of your athletes and reluctant or frightened to expose them to failure and risk. 

A bit of criticism can also go a long way. The key is to keep it constructive. 

As Aristotle once said, ‘There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.’  

While Andrew agrees with the principles of teaching children that it is okay to fail and to take risks (‘Trial and error. If you don’t try, who knows what you can do?’) and to not be put off by criticism, the message he is most keen to instil in his students is that perseverance is the key to improvement. 

‘It’s not the end of the world if you miss a catch. The important thing is to try to understand why you missed it and to have a go again. It’s not that you can’t do it, it’s that you can’t do it yet. You never say you are doing it wrong, you are not doing it righ… yet.’

Do you agree with Andrew? Or do you have your own ideas on helping children deal with failure? Please leave a comment below.

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

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Comments (2)

Excellent article because it highlights the key points about failure:
> You never fail if you want to try again
> Frame failure - kids fail when they play computer games, but continue to play them...why? Because they know they can get there eventually
> You can be tough on failure as well as positive - oohs/aahs don't give you points, but they do give you signals for getting close

Highly recommend this piece to any coach. Sport is brilliant because you can lose one day and there's always next week. Failure is part and parcel of this and we need to know how to manage it properly. Learn from Andrew's approach.
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F.A.I.L means first attempt in learning!

I always praise the successful elements of the action. As children and adults we have educated people into seeing failure as a bad thing with assessments and testing! You haven't passed, you failed etc.

It has to be a a supportive and change in mind set shift for all; coaches, parents and children and athletes.

I always say to my young players and students (as a PE teacher) , "failure is one of the biggest elements to learning and we talk about why etc" I think if they understand why is helps them learn and develop resilience.

I use the example of the cross bar challenge with difficult boys. They will try for hours, why? Difficult skill! When you get it, it's great! If practice can do it more and more often! These elements are then taken into my coaching
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