What will your epitaph say? How about, “she finished everything.” Doesn’t quite have that accomplished ring to it, does it? Yet our society, with participation medals for just about anything, has gotten to a place where finishing is enough. If you didn’t quit, then you have succeeded. Our kids are losing the drive to reach their potential, and we’re feeding them the lie that life is too hard to compete so just get through it, get your medal and celebrate not quitting.
When did disappointment and falling short of a goal become so cruel and life shattering that we felt we needed to stop competing out of fear of failure? Failure is a catalyst, it drives success by pushing people to work harder and outside of their comfort zone. When we take the opportunity for failure away from our kids and from ourselves, we have to replace it with something, and it’s usually complacency and acceptance of mediocrity in reaching their own personal best.
We all had great intentions, to protect our kids from what some of us experienced when we faced failure. But we have gotten the message wrong -without actually protecting them at all. No one wants a kid to feel like they aren’t performing the way they should, or to be hurt and feel defeated. So we took away the only hope they had to improve by removing competition. Instead of empowering these kids with a thought process that – they have control over their performance through hard work, focus, resiliency, and confidence, we have instead told them that they are all the same and that effort doesn’t’ matter as long as you finish. As long as you don’t quit.
Anigo Montoya received the best advice for all of us from the man in black, “get used to disappointment.” We can’t remove disappointment from life, sports used to be one of the best ways to learn how to face disappointment and use it to strive to be better. We’ve created a world of black and white for our kids, where they either aren’t good enough, and never will be, so we eliminate an activity (or coach) that might disappoint them, or we tell them they are all the same and they get an award for not quitting at the end of the season.
Being cut as a freshman from the lacrosse team was the single best motivator I had to get better. I spent every day in the gym, played wall ball until my arms were numb – I had one ball and the wall faced the woods. I knew if I didn’t catch it I might lose the ball, I didn’t let that ball get by me very often. It drove me to make the team the next year, and had I made the team the first time, I likely wouldn’t have put that time in to improve. When I made the team, I knew I had earned it and it felt amazing. If they hadn’t cut me, would I have been so driven? Would I have felt as fulfilled at making a team I wasn’t ready to be on? Would a participation medal at the end have felt as sweet as that Severna Park Lacrosse Jacket I had earned the right to wear through hard work?
Failure is the catalyst to success. I want to play a game against a team that on paper should just run right through us. It gives us something to improve for, it helps us see where our weaknesses are, and it teaches us that we still have work to do.
How can we then keep our kids from becoming discouraged when they fail, to help build their resiliency, without taking away competition, awards, tryouts, and the opportunity to fail?
The answer lies inside the growth mindset. The ability to believe and have the confidence that they can improve, having a reward for trying to improve, and a focus coming from their coach that effort and mastery is the ultimate measure of success – instead of just finishing.
The next one is a little bit harder because as coaches, we want to win. Allow a defeat to teach how to improve instead of what often becomes shaming, blaming and being angry for falling short. A loss is an opportunity, and as soon as the team, parents and coaches see that opportunity clearly, the pressure of winning every game softens and the game becomes what it was meant to be for student athletes, a game. The fear of disappointment can dissipate and in its place is the drive to put your best out there every time, knowing that there’s a harness holding you in if you do it wrong, because you’re still training safely for life.
A shift in mindset has to be clear, concise, and consistent from the coaching staff. It’s even more powerful if the parents are on board. What can I do better- replaces what did I do wrong? How can I train to improve replaces why am I not good enough? Who can I help get better so that we are better as a team replaces why is that other player failing us? Talking about how a player can reach their potential, the belief that they all have potential, should replace any conversations about blame –blame the coach, the officials, the other players, the field conditions, the lack of sleep etc.
And what if you put everything out there and you still fail? That’s a real possibility, and not just in the world of athletics. It’s not a curse to fail, it’s a gift and needs to be used, directed into positive channels and respected. As coaches we are teaching these kids what is the measure of success. If we define it in points and stats and forget to reward or acknowledge the improvement and work they have put in, then we are asking for a group of finishers instead of achievers. They can’t possibly succeed in a realm of uncontrollables. But if instead, the measure of success is each individual’s personal best, then failure doesn’t feel like failure, it feels more like being outmatched by a worthy opponent. It feels like drive to improve for next time, it feels like burning for a rematch instead of blaming, anger and quitting.
So your team lost, so you got cut, so you didn’t start the last game, now what? Well, what do you want to work on first? Use the gift of failure to find mastery, to reach higher than you thought you could. Let’s not take away this valuable tool from our kids by evening the playing field all the time. We need to let them have the opportunity to fail, while also giving them the tools to have dignity and hope for growth right alongside it.