Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “It’s always about focusing not on the mistakes but on the lessons learned from them.”


The reality is that how a coach responds to athletes’ errors — whether during practice or on the field — can impact them for a lifetime. As we all know, mistakes aren’t always a detriment; they can also be a teaching tool and an opportunity to strengthen trust and teamwork. Here are three ways to think about leveraging mistakes to support players.. 

  1. Confidence and Self-Awareness

A fearless performance on the field is easier said than done. Mistakes can cause an athlete to overanalyze, overthink, and get stuck in a cycle of making comparisons. It can cause them to hesitate during plays and lose confidence. But the beauty of a mistake lies in the opportunities it presents; it’s the chance for a player to dig deep and gain a more profound sense of self. What will your athletes lean into when left to sink or swim? 

Errors and missteps also indicate what works and what doesn’t — a chance to trust instincts, increase resilience, and embrace the journey. Sometimes, overcoming a fear of failure directly results from failing a few times and discovering it’s not the end of life as we know it. 

Mistakes tend to shine a light on our imperfections. But one of the most valuable lessons we can learn is that pushing past mistakes leads to the greatest of rewards: self-discovery and self-worth. 

  1. Focus and Problem-Solving

Mistakes present the opportunity to recalibrate, refocus, and restructure. Additionally, slip-ups can expose our “blind spots,” revealing areas that call for more focus. As a coach, you can encourage your players to rethink what failure means. Help them embrace “failing forward,” which ultimately instills the problem-solving skills they need to persevere. 

A few years ago, Forbes tackled the failing forward concept in a great post that supports the importance of using failure to foster a growth mindset. (The concept works in business and sports.) The post also warned against the consequences of ignoring failures altogether. “One of the worst things a leader can do after a team failure is to not address the situation. Sure, it’s natural to not want to discuss the issue – most team members would like to act like it didn’t happen and move on … [but] brushing failure under the rug can lead to an atmosphere steeped in fear.” Creating a safe space for healthy, calculated risk-taking means moving beyond comfort zones and leaving it all on the field.

  1. Compassion 

Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, once said, “As a coach, you should never lose your temper at a player. Never.” Compassion, credible coaching, and a culture of empathy start with you. When you offer a positive spin on the mistakes of your players and team, they are encouraged to follow suit. Personal growth isn’t the only benefit. That empathy will lead to a more cohesive team, build morale, and promote authentic connections.