I was recently at a middle school sports award assembly at Morristown-Beard School in Morristown, New Jersey and the athletic director, Mike Sturgeon, gave a great talk about the importance of failure (allow young athletes to fail). Sounds like an odd topic for an awards assembly. Initially, I thought so too.
First Mike explained why each of the middle school teams only play five to six games during their two-and-a-half-month seasons. Practice is more important than games. His philosophy, which I heartily agree with, is that at the elementary and middle school levels there should be three to five practices for every day of competition.
Allow Young Athletes to Fail
Mike then explained why practice is so important. Practice allows young athletes to fail. It lets them make and correct mistakes, hopefully, in an environment that is not as emotionally charged as a game.
I often use a player’s failure to execute a skill correctly as a way to teach the rest of the team. Last week I was teaching a group of second graders the basics of a roll dodge. I explained it, demonstrated it, and then let them try it. After each player tried a couple of times — and a number of dropped balls — I stopped them. I told them I was glad they dropped the balls. I got a few funny looks at this point. Why is Coach Meany happy that I can’t do this right? I then explained to them why the ball was falling out of their sticks. Their sticks were horizontal and the ball was rolling out as they rolled. When they saw this, made the adjustment (holding their sticks vertically on the roll), they were able to successfully execute the dodge.
Give Opportunities to Fail
This success didn’t happen without failing first. Mike expressed concern that we do not allow kids to fail often enough. As coaches, teachers, and parents, we are often too worried about our kids’ delicate psyches and self-esteem to let them make mistakes and then correct them. This is a huge disservice to these kids. We are all going to fail at something, somewhere along the line.
It’s not about how many times you get knocked down; it’s about how many times you get back up. That maybe the most important lesson we can learn from sports.
Mike closed by telling all the student-athletes that he hoped they were given plenty of opportunities to fail. I couldn’t agree more.