Learning from Failure

Mental Skills
By Andy Bass

We know we learn from failure—but that is not the end of the story.

We know failure is vital for growth, not only in sport but in life. It has almost become cliche to hear the phrase "we learn most through failure." And while this is certainly true (cliches exist for a reason)...there is more to the story.

If we were to complete a meta-analysis on contemporary research in sport psychology and motor learning, there would be a near-ubiquitous consensus amongst the academic community regarding the importance of failure. In motor learning, the benefits of random practice, differential learning, lessening feedback, and the constraints-led approach all contain a foundation of organic failure. In sport psychology, the concepts of embracing nerves, mental toughness through struggle, and accepting the arduous facets of sport likewise state the importance of failure on the path to success.

The kicker with failure, particularly in sport, is not so much that failure should exist-- it is the PERSPECTIVE we take on failure that can ultimately be the deciding factor. And we, as coaches, can be perhaps the strongest influence on how our athletes view failure.

When we learn something new, or when we are challenged in such a way that our minds and bodies recognize something needs to change (we are learning a new skill, we are struggling to complete a pass, we need to go faster to catch up with the person ahead of us). The particular electrical signal that is emitted from our brains during these times is known as an Event-Related Potential (ERP). The stronger the signal—the more likely that learning and growth will occur.

For most of us, failure is not fun. Even if we know that failure is important for growth, in the moment that failure occurs, we oftentimes still despise it. When we take this view of failure as something to avoid or something to despise, the strength of the signal from the event-related potential is a 3. But, when we view failure, not necessarily as something to be happy about (failure is rarely fun), but as something to embrace and be challenged by…the strength of the electrical signal is a 15… 5 times stronger (NOTE: this is not the way these signals are 'reported' in scientific journals; am using this notation for the sake of brevity and clarity).

When we view failure as something to embrace and not something to despise or avoid, we may learn FIVE times faster.

How can we use this to help our athletes? It is one thing to say that athletes need to embrace failure; we shouldn't be so worried if we do fail, failure is natural, etc. But words without action rarely take effect.

1-We don't have to bring attention to failure. If a player swings and misses, makes an error, throws to the wrong base-- we can just let it go. The player knows they messed up. And by us letting it go, they can perhaps begin to lean into the failure, rather than also being consumed with letting us down.
2-We can find the good in the failure for the athlete. "You made a mistake on that play, AND yet you stayed focused and made an incredible move later in the game."
3- We can model embracing failure as coaches. Be vulnerable with our athletes about times we failed... either as athletes or as coaches. What was our most epic fail? How did we learn from it? When our language normalizes failure, our athletes will begin to normalize failure in their own language.

Andy Bass is currently a Mental Performance Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bass played college baseball at Davidson College and was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He received his PhD in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior from the University of Tennessee.