Google “books about failure” and you will be inundated with options acknowledging the importance of falling short and “leaning into failure.” Interesting.
I’ve failed more than I’d like to admit. Two examples stand out for the important role they have played in my development.
Growing up, I was the best player on my grammar school JV and Varsity teams. The big fish in a small pond, I suppose. My first dose of high school tryouts included 80 something kids going for 12 spots. I was still pretty small and skinny for my age, but I could play. Didn’t matter, as my name wasn’t on the final roster. Cut. That hurt.
My freshman year of college found me getting little playing time early in the season. Some of this was the reality of being a freshman. The rest was self-imposed, as I was an absolute train wreck, barely attending class and staying up all night. It wasn’t long before it caught up to me and I was forced to give up my spot on the team for the second half of the season. No one to blame, but me.
Those two failures motivated me. And in both cases, by the time I was a senior I earned awards saying I was the best male athlete in the school.
I think about how things could have turned out differently.
What if there were no cuts in high school? Or what if the team carried 15…or 20 kids and I made it. How would I have turned out?
What if when I was messing up in college, my parents had been checking in with my teachers every week? Would there not giving me the freedom to fail have prevented my flaming out? Maybe. But would it have been the right thing? I don’t think so.
Failure can inspire us to work harder as it did for me, but it can also lead us down a different path.
In the middle of my coaching career, I recruited a great player from Dallas, TX. He would become one of the leading scorers in the college’s history. Another kid from his high school came along with him and was a pretty good player, a likely contributor down the road. But it was clear early on his commitment wasn’t to basketball. He really loved music. I suggested he might be better focusing on that. Years later, he is a success in the music business and thanks me on the rare occasions we cross paths. He is talented and would have eventually made it in music, but my words expedited the process.
In today’s world, “cutting” him might have been less acceptable. And in not cutting him, I may have actually hurt him more in the long run.
We don’t allow kids to fail much anymore. Sometimes, at all.
In classrooms. On teams. At home.
Our intentions might be good, but ultimately they produce more harm than good. We complain that kids are soft and entitled, but the environment around them allows for it.
Teachers and coaches then play it safe. Afraid to go against the system. A vicious cycle is born.
Now, parents are way more likely to blame the coach or the teacher when their kid falls short. And if it’s not the teacher or coach, it’s another kid…or the ref…
And sometimes, the parent is right. It is the coach or the teacher or the ref or whatever. But is the parent REALLY right?
Might it be better to instead say: “Hey, you came up short. No shame in that. Go figure out what the next step is.”
I see it a lot. And as a parent, I get it. I don’t want to see my kids hurt, either. But I know how much failure has helped me. I’m grateful for it. I’ve been molded by it (Bane voice…never gets old).
There is a thing as too much failure. I’m not advocating for kids to be beaten down by it. But we are smart enough to know the line. The danger of not letting our kids find it is scary.
Let them fail…and then be there to pat them on the back AFTER they get back up.