How will your epitaph read? 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 arrived at 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 breeds success by pushing us to work harder and get outside our comfort zones. When we take the opportunity for failure away from our kids, we have to replace it with something, and it’s usually complacency and acceptance of mediocrity in reaching their own personal best.

We all have 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.

Inigo Montoya gave the best advice for all of us from the man in black: “Get used to disappointment.”

 

Sports used to be one of the best ways to learn how to face disappointment and use it to strive to be better. Now, we’ve created a world of black and white for our kids. Either they 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 give them an award for not quitting at the end of the season.

Being cut from the lacrosse team as a freshman was the single best motivator I had to become a better player. I spent every day in the gym and played wall ball until my arms were numb. Often, I only had one ball, and the wall faced the woods. I knew if I didn’t catch it, I might lose the ball, so I didn’t let that ball get by me very often. When I made the team, I knew I had earned it.

If they hadn’t cut me, would I have been so driven? Would I have felt so fulfilled? 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 my own 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 strive for, helps us identify our weaknesses and reminds us that we still have work to do.

How, then, can we keep our kids from becoming discouraged when they fail? How can we help them build resiliency without taking away competition, awards and tryouts?

The answer lies inside the growth mindset: Giving players the confidence that they can improve and focusing on effort and mastery as the ultimate measures 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 your team how to improve, instead of what often becomes shaming, blaming and being angry for falling short. A loss is an opportunity. 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.

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. Talking about how a player can reach their potential should replace any conversations about blame.

  • “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?”

What if you put everything out there and 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.

If we define success in stats and forget to reward the improvement and hard work our players put in, we are asking for a group of finishers instead of a team of achievers. If 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, you got cut, 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.

Let’s allow them the opportunity to fail, while also giving them the tools to grow right alongside it.

Kate Leavell is a national coaching education trainer for US Lacrosse, as well as a high school varsity and NCAA Division III women's lacrosse coach in metro Atlanta, and a certified strength and conditioning coach.

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