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How to coach players: learning from failure

Find out from Paddy Upton how to enable players to focus on what they can learn from failure rather than focusing on the failure itself.
Field Hockey Team, Kila Raipur Rural Olympics 2009, INDIA
© Getty Images

Learning from failure can be difficult, but some of the greatest learning, growth, improvement and character-building opportunities lie here.

Coaches can’t know what players were thinking in the moments preceding an error, and players have acknowledged that most errors are caused by errors in thinking that then play out in a visible skill or execution error.

The ideal situation is for you, as a coach, to help the athlete follow this three-step process, either alone and in writing, in conversation with a trusted peer, with you as a coach or, if your team environment is genuinely safe and trusting, to have a player do this in front of the whole team.

  1. Acknowledge the visible error.
  2. Reveal the thinking that preceded the error.
  3. Come up with a solution for next time: players identify some things they could do differently next time, to give them a better chance of success.

Illustrating these in a practical example, a batter in a cricket game might:

  1. Acknowledge the visible error, owning that, ‘I got caught on the boundary, trying to hit a six’.
  2. Reveal her thinking, for example, ‘In reflecting on it afterwards, what I realised was the pressure I felt of needing to score runs, and I thought if I could hit a six, it would ease the pressure. I premeditated to hit the next ball for a six. She might even take responsibility by saying, ‘I’m sorry, I realise this error put further pressure on the rest of the batters’.
  3. Come up with a solution (which she might or might not have discussed with a peer or the coach) such as, ‘If I was in that situation again, the things I could do differently might be to talk it through with the other batters and get her input, and if it was still the right option, I’d wait for the right ball to hit, not just try and hit the very next ball’.

As a coach, I’d offer respect and a sincere acknowledgement to that player for her courage and honesty in sharing her review. Ideally, the captain, senior players and coach can lead by example, by being first to own their errors and share their solution in the way described here.

A player-centred coaching environment will see players doing even more of the speaking in the post-match review than the coach. My rule-of-thumb is to bring up the topic of discussion, for example reviewing the first 6-over power-play of our T20 innings, and then invite players to contribute by telling them I’m interested in hearing their views on that phase of play.

I generally allow players to do the talking, and ask coaches to speak once players are done, and only if they genuinely have value to add to the review. Good questions by coaches are often better than statements.

© Deakin University
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Player-centred Coaching

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