Sports Education

Stepping stones to success

I just keep goin’ up there and swingin’ at ‘em Babe Ruth, Hall of Fame baseball great.

A coach i greatly admire wears a T-shirt proclaiming on the first day of his team’s softball practice: “MISTAKES R WUND-ERFUL OPPORTUNITIES 2 LERN!” I love his shirt, for it admirably captures the cornerstone of my teaching and coaching philosophy — the ‘mistake center’ concept.

The most powerful way to teach children skills and at the same time create a joyous environment for them, is to encourage them to take risks in trying new things. I believe we learn best by attempting, analysing our mistakes, implementing the correction, and being congratulated for the effort. In this contribution, I want to emphatically make this point to athletes, coaches, teachers and parents: that practice fields and ballgames are ‘Centers of Mistakes’, places where worrying about “goofing-up” is not allowed.

This philosophy is a contradiction of the prevailing ideology that “winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing”. Too many coaches, parents, and teachers believe that losing is synonymous with failure to be avoided at all costs. To many athletes, a loss on the playing field or sports arena is so devastating it prompts them to quit sports altog-ether. But the reality is that failure cannot be avoided. The greatest of the great have failed at times, and so will you sometimes. There are three basic myths about failure that make it difficult, if not intolerable, to digest. These myths are self-limiting, and there are ways to demolish them cognitively.

Myth 1 — If you work hard enough, you can avoid failure. Not so! The best of the best haven’t escaped failure, so why should you? I’ve worked with America’s top professional and amateur athletes and coaches for more than 40 years, and they’ve all experienced failure at some level. Like so much of what we resist in life, failure expands and teaches us.

Myth 2 — Failure is worthless. Failure is the prerequisite of success, and mistakes are lessons; they have much to teach us if we learn from them. Indeed they are crucial to individual growth and development. Successful and creative people in all walks of life have higher-than-ordinary tolerance for their own errors, mistakes, and failures. They are willing to learn from setbacks and transform them into ‘schooling’ experiences. Though it’s natural to regret making mistakes, they are inevitable. Therefore they should be regarded as stepping stones to success.

Myth 3 — Failure is devastating. Of course! But negative sentiments eman-ating from setbacks and failure are invariably exaggerated.

The best coaches are aware that children learn faster from mistakes than from repetitive ‘correct’ practice, although conventional wisdom in sports decrees that kids learn best when they practice the ‘right’ way to do something over and over. But back in 2009, researchers writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology on learning, memory and cognition found that kids actually learn quicker and better when they make a mistake! Their observations coincide with those of Carol Dweck, who notes in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, that sports-persons who have a ‘growth’ mindset love to take on challenges and therefore make mistakes. They are more successful than those with ‘fixed’ mindsets, who fear failure. In short, I am suggesting you give your wards the freedom to fail and make mistakes — that you create a space for mistakes! How?

• Tell your students you want them to make mistakes. Stress that if they are not making mistakes, they aren’t learning. Let them know that when they make mistakes you approve rather than disapprove because they’ll be the better for it.

• Give them space. Encourage them to test their limits, innovate and experiment in the cause of performance improvement.

• Analyse mistakes. Without thoughtful reflection and analysis, your wards won’t learn from their mistakes. Discuss errors and wrong turns — what went right, what didn’t go well, and how they should do it differently the next time.

• Model positive behaviour in reaction to success and failure, to give kids the courage to fail. Don’t stare at the ground or roll your eyes when a kid makes a mistake! Remain engaged and offer your support and guidance.

Developing the capability of athletes and sportspersons to bounce back and learn from mistakes is one of the most important life skill lessons sports can teach. As parents, coaches and teachers we should resist the natural urge to protect players from failure.

Instead, coaches and mentors should work towards developing environments in which mistakes of commission and omission are accepted. A sagacious Buddhist nostrum aptly puts it: “The arrow that hits the bull’s eye is the result of a hundred misses.” Likewise getting to the top in games and sports requires overcoming fear of failure and learning instead to welcome mistakes and wrong turns as the stepping stones to success.

(Dr. George A. Selleck is a San Francisco-based advisor to EduSports, Bangalore)