Why Failure is so Important in Youth Sports

Working in the world of youth sports for nearly a decade has taught me many things.  One of the most important observations I have made is that parents today think it is their job to protect their children from failure.  I have heard the term "Helicopter Parent" referring to someone that hovers over their child saving them from any situation that could result in failure, but I believe the term "Lawnmower Parent" is more fitting.  I envision a helicopter staying a safe distance away, but always watching for the opportunity to swoop in if something happens.  However, a “lawnmower” sits directly above, with arms out, ready to catch their child should they stumble at all.

While many parents believe this is the answer for how to help their child achieve success, they often do not realize that they are actually hindering their child from developing the skills needed to succeed.

"FAILURE IS SO IMPORTANT. WE SPEAK ABOUT SUCCESS ALL THE TIME. IT IS THE ABILITY TO RESIST FAILURE OR USE FAILURE THAT OFTEN LEADS TO GREATER SUCCESS. I'VE MET PEOPLE WHO DON'T WANT TO TRY FOR FEAR OF FAILING."   -JK Rowling

When you apply this theory to sports, it becomes a glaring example of why the United States has not been able to consistently develop world class talent.  

The example that most readily comes to mind is when a player is trying out for a team and gets placed on the second team instead of the first team.  The parent then decides that the coaches don't know what they are talking about and they take their child to another club, trying out yet again to see if their player can make the first team.  This process is repeated season after season, year after year, just so the parent can tell their friends that their child plays on the first team.  

The lesson being missed here is that it is perfectly fine for a player to be placed on the second team.  By being on the second team you are constantly practicing with players that are of equal or better quality, pushing the player to develop at a rate that is going to be most beneficial to their environment and skill level.  They learn that in order to get to the first team they must work extra hard and be extremely dedicated in order to improve their skills at a rate greater than their peers.  This lesson will be repeated many times over in their life in settings other than sports.  

Another example is when a player is wondering why they aren't getting as much game time as they would like.  A common scenario is when the parent then goes to the coach asking why little Johnny isn't getting as much playing time as Jimmy.  The coach gives an explanation that no matter what the parent isn't going to like, and the parent then reacts by rallying other parents on why the coach is terrible, ultimately getting rid of the coach.

The lesson to be taught here is to make the player responsible for his or her performances and have them approach the coach to ask why they aren't getting as much playing time or developing as fast as they would like.  This teaches the player to speak to their superior and learn how to deal with direction and constructive criticism while keeping a level head.  The parent should encourage the player to continue following up with the coach as he or she puts in the hard work.  

The real moral here is that players need to be able to enjoy their successes and learn from their failures as youth athletes.  Protecting players from failure does nothing to teach them about perseverance.  Ultimately, their resilience is what is going to make them successful, be it in sports or beyond the game.