Every time my high school volleyball team lost (which was more than we ever won) our coach would always give the same half-hopeful speech. It went something like, “All I ask is that we go out and give it our all as a team each week. If we’re doing that, then this loss must be meant to build our character.

As an athlete who was growing very comfortable with defeat, I always left these losses thinking, “Our team must have more character than any other school district within a 100 mile radius.”

As coaches, we often try to guide our players into the valuable life lessons that athletics inevitably serves up– whether or not we are on the winning team. But softening the sting of a tough loss (or a losing season) needs more than learning how to graciously accept being taken to the cleaners week after week. It’s a valuable thing to know how to exhibit excellence in sportsmanship, but it’s even more awe inspiring to be the underdog and harness the power of failing well.

Coach and author of The Confident Athlete, Tami Matheny, shared her spin on this perspective in an episode of the Sport Fuels Life podcast. She says to flip the script on failures, mistakes and missteps and say, “This is Good!” But how can you teach your athletes to harness the power of failure? We’ve got the top three steps you can take to ignite the passion to fail without fear.

Help Your Players To Self-Assess With Grace

Recent studies by Jeff Elison and Julie A. Partridge explores shame coping and perfectionism in college athletes shows that athletes who favor unhealthy self-talk as a shame-coping response “go beyond simply internalizing their mistakes and shortcomings, they tend to blow them out of proportion and ruminate, magnifying their negative impact.” This study also added that the highest correlations of perfectionism and inability to let go are between negative self-talk, fear of shame and embarrassment, and concern over mistakes. The study suggests that athletes who reported more negative self-talk were more frequently afraid of shame (because their negative thoughts magnify its intensity) and are more concerned with their mistakes, being unable to let go of them. Learning how to quiet the negative chatter in their minds and turn a mistake into a valuable learning opportunity are vital to athlete success. Mindfulness and self-awareness are two factors that have become cornerstones in many elite athletes toolkit to learn how to welcome grace into their self-evaluations. 

Learn to Love (and Reward) The Risks

Maybe you lost this game, coach...but when someone on your team takes a big risk–even (especially) if it doesn’t pan out to the great play they had hoped for–there’s serious power in celebrating their individual bravery. This is how we as coaches can bust fear of failure within our team culture. Psychology Today says that squashing fear related to risk-taking helps athletes to “see risk taking as a challenge to pursue, not a threat to avoid. With this challenge response, [players] will be energized, committed, confident, and focused”, all of which will position those risks to pay off in great competitive performances. Celebrating an athlete’s bravery can be as simple as awarding a bravery or big play sticker at the end of each game.

Let Your Performance Reflection Become a Creative Problem Solving Session

Our failures often highlight areas of weakness that need improvement. These shortcomings can take on a more positive role if we can learn to change our perspective and use our disadvantages to gain a competitive edge. No one does this better than the elite athlete. With an openness to learning, dedication, focus and accountability players will enable a growth mindset and take deeper ownership of their athletic journey.

Are you interested in taking your team to the next level? Download our free Champion’s Playbook now for more on how to develop a winning mindset and thriving team culture.