Student Well-Being

Promoting a Mistake-Accepting Culture for Student-Athletes

By Bryan Toporek — June 24, 2011 2 min read
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Does practicing proper techniques make perfect in sports? Emerging research

suggests that students actually learn faster after committing a mistake.

With that in mind, Liberty Mutual’s Responsible Sports program gives six tips this month about how coaches can create a “Mistakes Made Here” environment with their student-athletes.

These tips for coaches include telling your student-athletes that you want them to make mistakes (to help them learn), analyzing mistakes once they happen, practicing a mistake ritual (student-athletes learning to “flush” the mistake away), and rewarding failure with a “top mistake competition.”

The Responsible Sports website cites Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, who says in her book that student-athletes who love challenges and learning from failures (a “growth” mindset) often trump athletes who rely on innate talents and fear failure (a “fixed” mindset).

In fact, praising students for innate talent may actually cause them to underperform and fear challenges, journalist Po Bronson wrote in a 2007 cover story for New York Magazine. She cited emerging research that suggested parents and coaches should be quick to praise students’ effort, given that it’s something the child can control, instead of intelligence.

You didn’t even have to leave to get a similar perspective. In a recent Commentary for EdWeek titled, “Why Wrong Isn’t Always Bad,” Alina Tugend wrote that the high-stakes-testing culture of NCLB has often caused schools to forget to teach students how to fail.

We're creating, as one teacher told me, "victims of excellence." Kids who are afraid to take risks, to be creative, to be wrong. Because wrong is always bad.
We grow up with a mixed message: Making mistakes is a necessary learning tool, but we should avoid them.

With the NBA still on the mind due to last night’s draft, let’s put this in pro basketball terms. Don Nelson, who now holds the record for most NBA coaching wins, had a reputation for having a quick hook with his players, especially rookies. If a rookie made a mistake attributable to inexperience, that player would often look over and see Nelson already preparing a substitute for him. For what it’s worth, despite Nelson’s 1,300+ wins, no Nelson-coached team ever made it to the NBA Finals.

Compare that with Phil Jackson, he of the 11 NBA championship rings. The “Zen Master” became famous for not calling timeouts during rough patches in games, allowing his players to work through the challenges of regaining momentum. Coincidence or not, he’s now the coach with the most NBA championships in league history.

So, what type of coach are you? A Phil Jackson or a Don Nelson? And which approach would be more beneficial for the long-term athletic development of your student-athletes? That’s a question all coaches should get introspective about this summer as they prepare for the grind of another season.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.