Sport Bay of Plenty

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Failure is skill learning thinly disguised

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

In an age where there’s pressure to be perfect, coaches need to be patient and supportive of the way people learn, explains Dave Clarke from Sport Bay of Plenty’s CoachForce team.

We live in a time where there is expectation to be mistake free; perfect and flawless in all that we do. This notion is at odds with our ability to learn and adapt new skills because learning new skills is a very messy process at the best of times.


In a sporting context coaches should be cognitive that each person, young or old, will learn at different rates, so be patient with them as they seek to understand and feel their way through the process.

We all fall into what we call the learning pit where we might start with some confusion. We then start to understand a little, then understand a little more, and then slowly climb our way out of the pit before mostly understanding the skill or concept and having the ability to perform it. When we’re under pressure it will take more time to fully leave the pit and consistently perform that skill, as well as be able to adapt the skill to different situations.

We as coaches need to embrace and encourage failure because 99% of the time failure is learning in disguise. Watch the below skateboarder trying to learn a new skill: it’s the perfect example of learning through failure. You’ll also notice there is no coach in sight directing or telling him anything as he works his way through the process.

The challenge point concept
The challenge point concept used in coaching is where we are constantly trying to ensure our athletes are failing around 20 to 40 per cent of the time in any learning phase of training. This approach ensures the athlete is being stretched and extended beyond their comfort zone and is where all the learning takes place. If everything is going perfectly it is probably time to change it up!

On the other hand, punishments for dropping the ball, or missing a shot or a tackle will only lead to more mistakes and will crush the confidence and innovative potential of athletes. Instead rather than learning from mistakes an athlete will learn to fear making errors.

It’s okay for training to be messy because it means that learning is taking place. People will fail and that’s okay. What matters is taking the time for them to learn and understand and helping them on that journey. Don’t punish. Instead the best job we can do is to create an environment where it is safe to try things and we encourage innovation and creativity.

Dave Clarke
Coaching and Talent Development Team Leader

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