The importance of failure


Spotify recently produced two videos explaining the culture and processes that have taken them from a small start up in 2008 to 40 million users just 6 years later.

Note: Thanks to Dr Joseph Lightfoot for sharing on Twitter – he is a great follow for this type of content.

Of particular interest was their approach to failure – Skip to 50s and watch to 3mins 30s:

There are some important lessons for coaches and athletes here:

Failure is a key step on the journey to success

It is well known in the general population that trial and error is a fundamental method of human learning as per the example of a child learning to walk. Nonetheless when it comes to coaching the overwhelming urge to correct faults causes many coaches to try and negate this process.

Traditional coaching convention is to stop a practice to highlight some of (often all of) the technical errors the athlete is making (in a long and detailed diatribe), remind (shout at) them what they should be doing as they try to perform a drill (that is totally alien to the performance environment) that breaks the skill in to parts that the athlete must try and reassemble into the whole skill at a later point. In other words coaches often generally get in the way of learning!

Every dropped ball, misplaced pass or slip and fall provides information to athletes – far more information in fact than any success. Think of your coaching practice – the worst sessions I have run where everything has gone badly have helped shape my methods and thinking far more than sessions that have run smoothly.

This video provides a good demonstration of how success can hinder learning and the importance of experimenting with failure in mind.

Failure without learning is just failing

Athletes need to understand what went wrong and why but they need the time and space to work this out themselves based on experimentation. Too often coaches are impatient in seeking improvement and give the answers to their athletes.

While they may see an immediate improvement in that session this often results in a lack of real learning and retention. I covered this in my blog about explicit vs implicit learning. When skills are learnt implicitly through self discovery they do take longer to learn but once learnt they are much more stable and resilient to pressure.

If a golfer is struggling with slicing the ball a coach will often adjust the grip or stance. This may not be the reason for the fault though as every golfer varies in so many ways. Height, limb length, injuries, playing age, previous coaching – there are many factors influencing their technique.

Rather than physically adjusting their foot position or grip to where the coach thinks it should be it is far better to challenge them to find out why the slice is happening and how different factors affect THEIR swing.

  • “What happens when you widen or narrow your stance?”
  • “What happens if you move your grip further up or down the club?”
  • “What do you have to do to hook the ball instead of slice it?”

There will be plenty of failure here but the golfer will learn to control the ball through trial and error of each of these aspects.

This “Guided Discovery” approach not only corrects the fault in the most appropriate way for that individual it also gives the athlete a wealth of information that will be applicable to other skills.  In this example when they come to chipping they will have already found that narrowing their stance creates greater control on a shot and so will be able to apply this lesson early on.

Shock, horror its also fun and engaging for the athlete!

Fail Friendly Environments

As failure has such negative connotations it is important to use this approach in ways and times where athletes feel it is safe to fail and are able to digest the information from failure.

Athletes often feel great pressure to perform perfectly even in training where although there are no consequences such as losing league points or being knocked out of a cup the coach often criticises mistakes and demands perfect performance. Everyone has seen athletes receive a tongue lashing or doing press ups for making mistakes in a practice. Great way to instil a fear of failure!

Simple things such as telling the athlete that they are expected to make mistakes or tasking them to make mistakes as in the example of asking them to hook the ball take that pressure off and create the time and space for learning.

When they are used to failure and learning from it athletes are able to recover from it more quickly versus those who fear failure and therefore avoid it. This has obvious implications when they are in competition, under pressure and make a mistake.

Nassim Nicolas Taleb calls this Anti Fragility 

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.  Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

My worry is that the more money creeps into sport the harder it becomes for coaches and players to experiment and fail. 

Most elite Academies have full time coaches and in football some players under 18 are earning £10,000+ a week! With sums such as these come expectations which destroy the safe to fail learning zone in my opinion.

Even at grassroots level there are coaches being paid either in cash or in kind and I just wonder whether this exerts pressures that reinforce the traditional coaching model which seeks improvement which is immediate but unstable and fragile.

Just have a go…

Another trend I see is the lack of willingness to just roll up your sleeves and have a go these days.  The internet age has put the world’s information at our fingertips and it seems to paralyse people.

I regularly see athletes say they would like to try the Olympic Lifts but there isn’t a coach near them.  Some athletes I have coached have been extremely hesitant to try new exercises that they haven’t done before.

Just have a go!  

Use some common sense to make sure its a safe to fail environment not only in mindset but in physical safety and have a go!

I’ll leave you with a story that I think draws a few points from this blog together and moreover because it made me laugh.

My Dad came home from work as a Facilities Manager one day with a torn shirt which was covered in grease and cuts all over his hands. One of the lifts had broken down and the engineers were unable to get across town to fix it so my Dad had a go!

Incredulously I asked him “What do you know about lifts?!” to which he drily replied:

“A lot more than I did 4 hours ago…….”

How we coach

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