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Make Failure Fun

Old School Psychology

You may have heard me talk about B.F. Skinner in my coaching clinics because I am very open to his philosophy of learning. Through my research of Skinner, I learned to create a successful environment that does a lot of the work for me and lets the coach fill in the gaps, but let the 'creature' (ie. athlete) explore their landscape openly without me having to give them verbal instructions. I believe you should actually allow the athlete to explore on their own terms as much as possible. However, we do have to go back about 30 years before Skinner's time and review Edward Lee Thorndike's Laws of Learning (1874 - 1949). Thorndike, who studied animal behaviour is an earlier researcher who gave behaviouralists, like Skinner, their platform for more research.

Thorndike was a well known psychologist that created the "Law of Effect” principle. This theory suggests that: "responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation (Gray, 2011, p. 108–109)." His work on learning theory led to the development of operant conditioning within Behaviorism. This differed from the classical conditioning theories of the time that depended on developing associations between events. Operant conditioning involves learning from the consequences of our behaviour.

Thorndike conducted his experiments by placing a cat in a puzzle box with a scrap of fish placed outside the box.  The cat was encouraged to escape by reaching for the fish and Thorndike measured the time it took to escape.  The cats experimented with different ways to escape the puzzle box and reach the fish. Eventually they would stumble upon the lever which opened the cage.  When it had escaped it was put in again, and once more the time it took to escape was noted.  In successive trials the cats would learn that pressing the lever would have favorable consequences and they would adopt this behaviour, becoming increasingly quick at pressing the lever.

Thorndike then put forward the “Law of Effect” principle which stated that, "Any behaviour that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and any behaviour followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to be stopped."

But what does this have to do with coaching gymnastics? Everything.

Remember, all humans are basically 'animals' biologically, so we can adapt these theories to our coaching. As as coach we should not focus on the negative results of the behaviour. Focus on the positive feeling the athlete has once the behaviour has been completed.

But how do we practically do this? It is very easy for a coach to become consumed by results in the here-and-now and forget about the long term results that can be achieved. From my experiences through my numerous coaching clinics, I see that highlighting the athlete’s successful skills, instead of the non-successful skills, creates the desired effect and more motivation to achieve results faster. Much like Thorndike's cat. But what is often the case are coaches focusing on what went wrong... "That was a good take-off to your vault; BUT, you need to.... "

It is the BUT, where the negative reinforcement begins. The athlete only hears what comes after the 'BUT.' I didn't do it right, is in their mind.

Although, highlighting only the successful skills and asking the athlete to remember those great moments doesn't always help, as an athlete is going to fail more than they will succeed. Day-to-day, an athlete will spend more time learning skills and falling down than they will completing skills perfectly. There is always a new skill to learn, so to only use the relatively smaller number of successful moments is really missing what Thorndike was talking about.

If you want an athlete to stay the course and not quit, the coach really needs to find a way to make failure fun. Coaches can do this a few ways:

  • Root For The Athlete: When I coach I will use my personality to have the athlete understand that I want them to get the skill. You have to have the athlete believe that you truly are invested in their pathway, not in their end result. You have to look like you are anticipating the skill. If they do not get it you say things that indicate they are getting closer. They have to really see the emotion in what you are saying so they feel you REALLY are on their side, not just standing there with arms folded critiquing the end result, which is far too common. Remember, kids are more emotional so they need to see more emotion than what you may think is appropriate. Show them how much you care, as if you were a kid as well. This covers up the failed skills with friendship which is more powerful at the end of the day.

  • Put Failure Into Perspective: Failure is often seen as a bad thing, but in reality it is a necessary evil, the other side of the coin, or the actual process of learning itself. Highlight failed attempts as good by simply making that mantra in your gym. Too many coaches stick to the “Failure = Bad” schema, when in reality they should make the athlete understand they have to fail to succeed. You can slowly change your athlete’s perspective about failure so they will learn to work with it and become energized by it, especially if they think it is just part of life. Muscles can’t be built without tearing down the muscle as you do it. Athletes will have to tear down their old-self and allow a new stronger self to be made in incremental steps. Have a real conversation about this reality to help put failure into perspective and have the athletes understand that failure is actually a sign of improvement.

  • Reinforce The Rotational Pathway: When an athlete understands that all skills are easy to learn if you go through a consistent rotational pathway, then the only thing to learn is “what is next along my pathway.” These ‘bumps in the road’ are not the concern. This is when I use my mat builders and degree-by-degree approach. They take learning into their own hands in a safe way, so they already know when they need to repeat a step or go back a step, without you having to constantly tell them. This way, they will be focused on the long term pathway they are traveling along and not as focused on the day to day failures. This is why we teach a rotational pathway mentality to our athletes compared to skill-by-skill reinforcement. Devalue the skill-by-skill failures in the athlete’s mind by keeping their focus as much as possible on the BIG PICTURE and keep reinforcing them that the bumps along the road are all part of it and not bad.

In summary, the coaches and the management all decide the culture of the facility. If there is a culture that is focused on failure automatically being interpreted as bad then that gym club is not utilizing what Thorndike was discussing in his original theories. Keep your athletes involved in the sport by shifting the way they see failure. We all fail and we can learn from it, but do not focus on it. That is why we highlight the instances when we actually accomplish something worthwhile. By finding creative ways to show the positive side of failure over time you can keep athletes on their rotational pathway even longer.

1 Comment

Great stuff for the coaches Greg; keep up your good work.

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