Take a minute to imagine this scenario.
It’s the first trial for a Munster team that you desperately want to get on. There’s 50-odd other players there, all looking somewhat nervous. You can feel the stiffness in your legs, the butterflies in your stomach and the shakiness in your hands. You’ve warmed up, done some push passing and then the coach drops a bomb.
“OK everyone, let’s try some reverse passing. I mean hitting now, not sweeping. About 15 metres apart, nice and smooth, focus on pace and accuracy. Off you go.”
You have a problem. You can’t reverse hit to save your life. There’s a player over there who is hitting every single one, lovely and flat, and you can’t even connect with the ball. And now the coach is walking right by you…
So what do you do? How do react? How do you deal with this situation?
As a coach, here’s what I’m looking for in this scenario: effort. If you can’t quite perform a reverse hit yet, that’s fine, we can work on that. But I need to see the player try. Someone who is willing to fail, willing to make mistakes? That’s a player I can coach. Someone who decides they can’t do it, and deliberately defies instruction – say, they start reverse sweeping instead, because it’s easier – immediately marks themselves out as a player who could be difficult to coach. One who might give up when things get tough.
John Wooden, the legendary American basketball coach (pictured below), has a nice line about failure, and why it is necessary: “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes. I wanted doers on my team – players who make things happen.”
Similarly, sociologist Benjamin Barber said he didn’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures – for him it was about “learners and non-learners”.
It sounds strange that anyone could be a “non-learner” given we are all born with an inbuilt desire to do so. Babies never decide that learning to walk and talk will be too difficult or not worth the effort; they fail repeatedly, without shame, and get on with it.
Yet for many of us, with age comes inhibition and fear of failure. In hockey terms, it often manifests itself at training. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes and sighed to yourself when your coach wants the team to work on something you’re not very strong at – “Let’s do some 1 v 1’s” is the one that usually unnerves me – you’ll understand this.
This is what Stanford University professor Carol Dweck – a pioneer regarding theories of intelligence – calls a “fixed mindset”, which limits our ability and capacity to learn. She also coined the term “growth mindset”, and explains both thus:
“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success – without effort. They’re wrong.
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”
So which mindset do you have? More importantly, which mindset do you want to have? Nobody likes failure, but understanding that it is part of the process is what all the best players must do.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you should also tolerate mediocrity of course, but accepting failure is a useful mental tool. Worrying about messing things up on the pitch usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy – in other words, if you think you’re going to make mistakes, you probably will. The best athletes don’t tie up their ego with the outcome of their sport – just ask Michael Jordan.