How to Overcome Fear of Mistakes: One Coach’s Story

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fear-300x243Scientists call it the “sweet spot” — that highly productive zone on the edge of our abilities where learning happens fastest. The problem, of course, is that the sweet spot doesn’t feel sweet. In fact, it feels sour and uncomfortable, because being there you have to take risks and make mistakes. And most of us hate making mistakes.

Basically, we’re allergic.

But what’s kick-assingly powerful  is when somebody finds a simple way to reverse that allergy. With that in mind, check out the following letter from Jared Mathes, who coaches a U-14 volleyball team in Calgary, Alberta.

The one problem I have on my team is having the athletes get over the fear of making a mistake.  We do great in practice, but during a tournament, the more “important” the game, the more they regress to predictable, safe playing.

To overcome this, we discussed as a team a few weeks ago that the March 17 tournament would be a “throw-away”.  We didn’t care about the outcome. If players played aggressive they would never be in danger of being subbed off, no matter how many mistakes they made.  Everyone bought into the system and was willing to give it a try, except for about half of my parent group.  They had a hard time accepting the fact that we were going to let the girls figure it out and let them “go for it” on every ball regardless of the score or the stakes.

As we started the day, we had serves going out and wide. But the team was relaxed and having fun.  If they didn’t get a great spike in one rally, they tried even harder the next time.  They saw that by making positive errors, often the other team would still go for the ball and touch it, giving us a point.  As the day progressed, they were becoming more confident.  I had athletes who had never attempted jump serving, trying it and succeeding.  Our play was getting more aggressive as the day went on and we were constantly winning.

We made it to the semi-finals and all of my doubting parents were congratulating me on  the genius of the approach to the tournament.  They couldn’t believe how well their daughters were playing, and it was just getting better.  I cautioned them and reminded them that the focus has to be on the process, not the outcome, and that even if we were in last place, it would still have been a worthy strategy for all the teaching it provided. We played with the most aggression and intelligence we have ever done. We hit from everywhere on the court.   It was beautiful to watch.

In the second game of the finals, we were behind 23-19. My athlete who was up to serve was one who had discovered her jump serve throughout the day.  In the past, she would have regressed and underhand served because she had no confidence in her overhand serve during a critical time in the match.  However, with no fear of messing up, and having the entire bench and coaching staff cheering her on to “go for it!”, she let fly an amazing jump serve.  Ace!  The score is now 23-21 for them.  She goes up to do it again.  I look over and her mother is covering her eyes.  This player has never served 2 jump serves in a row and her mother can’t watch.  We’re all cheering her to go for it.  Again, Ace!.  Score is 23-22 for them.  Confidently, she goes back to serve again.  She ends up serving 3 more aces, all off of her newly found jump serve and we win the tournament.  The bench is going crazy and the parents are ecstatic.  I think her mother suffered a minor heart attack.

After we clear the court I gather the team around and ask her in front of all the players how it felt to “go for it!” when we were down by 5 and ended up winning the match and the tournament!  With tears in her eyes, all she could say was “It was awesome!”

Sincerely,

Jared Mathes

I love this story for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because it shows the power of redefining failure: of providing a space where mistakes aren’t merely tolerated, but seen as a productive, essential part of the process. Positive errors – what a wonderful term.

The other takeaway, I think, is this: coaches and parents are storytellers. Their job is to create an emotional safe zone where players can go to the edges of their abilities and then beyond. Jared’s wisdom was to change the story — this is a throwaway tournament — and that nudged his players into the sweet spot.

Which, as they discovered, is pretty freaking sweet.

(Big thanks to the great coach and teacher John Kessel for sharing Jared’s letter.)


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13 Responses to “How to Overcome Fear of Mistakes: One Coach’s Story”

  1. tw says:

    Congrats Jared. In reading your story I am reminded of how things used to be. The children need more coaches like you. Their lives will be vastly improved through more experiences like this win or lose.

    This is a great story and to me says more about how people are raised today and what they see around them.

    It brought to mind a book by an old friend, Jason Dorland (Horses and Chariots) who talks alot about the pressures of winning, testing and exploring your limits….and what happens when you are having fun doing it…..the results speak for themselves.

    tw

    And a belated thanks to you Daniel for your amazing work in print and on the web. Thought provoking and inspiring.

  2. Philip Simmonds says:

    Jared is moving from explicate to implicate learning.

  3. doc says:

    Great Post!! I’ve always found it interesting that we in coaching spend so much time teaching technique and building self confidence and stressing the importance of competition. Then we do things like put in pass prevents late in the game, change a style of play that has been working the prior 95% of the game and play not to lose, or have a pitcher walk a hot hitter when the situation really doesn’t dictate it but because we are afraid of the outcome. I often wonder what games would be like if there were more coaches like Jared and maybe make the games less about the coaches and more about the players. I once had a coach blowing out my basketball team when he put in his second team. The blowout continued but not quite as bad and then the third team came in and we could compete with them I only had 7 players. The game got close and we almost pulled it out but he left his third string in to finish. In talking to him after the game I asked why. Basically he said his 3rd stringers needed to feel what competition was like because they seldom played with the game on the line. I think he and Jared would have been good friends.

  4. Mariko says:

    Jared,

    Awesome post! I am a volleyball coach as well and I am constantly working to get my girls to play free and go for it. In my early years of coaching I was consumed with winning and had the girls “play it safe” and just keep the ball in. We had a winning season but I realized at the end of the season that the players didn’t really learn anything, other than being safe and avoiding errors and struggle.

    Now especially during close matches, I tell my girls to swing away and serve tough! I ensure them the only time I will ever sub them out is if their body language or attitude towards themselves or their teammates is negative (ie. not cheering, head down, pouting etc.) that has taught them to not only be aggressive but to learn to control their reaction to mistakes. They become more mindful of how they carry themselves after a mistake and learn to fix it. I also tell my setters, and my hitters that if you make an error, you WILL be set again. That way they know they are being given another chance, and to show that their team has confidence that they can do it.

    By making these changes as a coach, my players have had a richer, more positive experience, and they have learned to play the game aggressively and to not shy away from a challenge. It has made coaching so much more fun and productive. Thanks for the share and it’s nice to know that there are other coaches out there doing the same!

  5. Gnde says:

    I like the commitment to a different strategy for improvement. I think a parallel could be made to coaches being hesitant in trying different approaches to what the players are faced with in a match.

    One thing that immediately springs to mind for me is serving in tennis, especially for the lower level recreational players. There is a mental hurdle of going for too much on a second serve where the consequence is a loss of a point. Therefore some players have strong first serves (little consequence to failure) and very weak tap-in serves (significant consequence). This hurdle is greater for many rec players because much of their playing time is match play, not practice. At some point the player must overcome the fear of losing a point and focus on improving (near the edge of their ability, finding that sweet spot). This hurdle may also appear again through a loss of confidence during a match and a player might become more and more conservative to their detriment. Even with a coach, it can be difficult to overcome.

  6. Mike Polonsky says:

    Love the post, and the term positive errors. When coaching hockey, I routinely use regular-season games to achieve the same level of freedom for my players. For instance, I’ll tell the team this game is not about winning (just like Jared). I reinforce that I don’t care if we win or not. What I do care about, for instance, is how many times we try the down-low (an offensive tactic), which hypothetically was the focus of recent practices. I then tell the team that during that game a parent is going to be recording what players try the down-low and how often;, and whatever line tries it the most, gets rewarded by picking the drills for the next practice. Jared’s great post has serve to remind me that a game is really just another drill — an opportunity to practise the skills that lead to success.

  7. oooh, this is something I wish I had learned as a younger person! It’s hard to risk and put yourself out there … while I’m good at my job and I love it … there are days I wonder if I would simply be a better PERSON if I were willing to risk more!

  8. Yes heather,I know what you mean…..I’m good at what I do except I don’t want to do that any longer…it’s hard to take the plunge but we have to……or we just end up with regrets…good luck

  9. dave hamm says:

    I had a very similar incident this last weekend. We were behind 11-13 in the third game and players were trying to be ‘safe’but then you slow down your swing and the ball drops lower and you end up missing and doing the very thing you are trying to avoid! I called a timeout and told them this reminded me of the second game in our third tournament. They looked at me like , ‘huh’. And I said, you don’t remember that game and you are not going to remember this game either so what are you afraid of!! Go out be aggressive and quit worrying about the score! They did and we ran off 4 straight point and won the match. You have to give your players the ‘freedom to fail’ for them to get better.

  10. Willy says:

    Wonderful! It’s all about risk taking, courage…yes mistake are part of experiments, learning process…the way to success. Thanks for sharing this…

  11. Peter says:

    Dear Daniel

    I am a teacher of 11-18 year olds in the UK, and have been a rugby and athletics coach for over 20 years. I read your recent blog post on overcoming fear with great interest, as it resonated with many similar experiences over the years, not just in a sporting context, but also in the classroom. In reading the post, it struck me that this was also a story of empowerment, of handing over responsibility to the athletes to make the decisions about what to do, when and how, and as such has a powerful lesson for today’s world. When so much emphasis is placed on results, the pressure to get the right answer – in the classroom, on the sports pitch, in the boardroom – is immense. As a consequence, the fear of getting the wrong answer (of ‘failing’) grows ever stronger. So we play safe rather than take a risk. Of course, there are times when a reasoned evaluation of risk and reward suggest that this is the right option!

    However, much can learned if we risk, and make, mistakes. As a coach and educator (not that the two are ultimately that different), one of the biggest lessons my mistakes have taught me has been the disservice I do my students and players when I give them the ‘answer’, rather than trusting them and their ability to work out a solution for themselves. The first approach may result in short-term achievement, but will do little to embed the processes which will allow such success to be repeated, let alone built upon. In short, by denying the student or player responsibility I have done little or nothing to build their resilience or independence in the long-term. I am not advocating a laissez-faire ‘free for all’ in which those whose learning we are entrusted with are left to their own devices, but rather that the aim should be to create a safe and supportive environment which allows personal responsibility and growth to flourish through accepting, and indeed valuing, risk and mistakes. I firmly believe that it is through dealing with risk and failure that character is revealed and developed – a crucial characteristic for success.

    I have found that the next challenge is then to prevent players/students reverting to the ‘safety-first’ approach next time out, usually when the risk/stakes appear to increase! I would be very interested to hear how Jared managed this transition!

    Thanks for producing such a great blog – really invigorating, thought-provoking stuff that I use a great deal with colleagues, students, players and parents.

  12. Craig says:

    This same sort of idea can very easily be applied to learning skills as well.

    I was already in college when I decided to try speed skating for the first time. I had never once been on ice skates before this.
    Once I started getting the hang of being on ice I decided that the only way to excel rapidly was by making a point of taking chances. So instead of being afraid to fall, I literally made falling a short term goal.
    For me, if I didn’t fall an average of four times during the course of practice then it wasn’t a successful practice in my eyes.
    By adopting this perspective I was able to literally blow through various stages of improvement.
    I went from having never been in skates before to making the U.S. qualifying standard for the Olympic Trials in less than 18 months!!
    I went directly from my local club to training with elite coaches and athletes at an Olympic Training Center.
    When my coach (at the O.T.C.) asked exactly how I had managed to get so good so fast I told him, simply, that I made a point of falling.
    He thought I was nuts. But he couldn’t deny that it had worked.
    Of course, this wasn’t the only thing that helped my rapid increase in skill. I happened to also be studying biomechanics while in college which gave me an edge. But it was the perspective on falling and failing that I consider to have been the most important aspect.

  13. Cathleen says:

    I like this idea. I can see how it may apply to musicians learning new music. That’s easy and I think a great idea. I wonder how it may apply to an ensemble who knows their music and is having a tough time “putting all the pieces together”. This was the scenario with my band yesterday. The kids are great players but we were failing on EVERY SONG, and we’ve been preparing them since January. Was it an off day? Why were they so unfocused? I’m wondering if someone can brainstorm some ideas as to how an approach like this could be used in my situation. Or perhaps suggest a different approach.

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