I came across the following on social media and thought it something worth discussing.

So… a lot of us talk about letting our players “make mistakes,” or foster a culture where it is OK to make mistakes. So, what does that look like in a practical sense? Last year, my middle, who has been working on a nasty jump serve goes back to the serve line, makes eye contact and says, “Jump?” I nod and say sure. I am in Nebraska and she proceeds to launch the ball somewhere into South Dakota. Obviously, she was embarrassed. My response was “whoa…” with a smile on my face. I mean, what do you do? But in practice, what does “let them make mistakes,” mean to you? What does it look like?

I’ve written a bunch on the topic of creating an environment where mistakes are fostered and encouraged. Climbing Mistake Mountain is a starting point, so I’ll try not to go over a lot of the same ground here.

What it sounds like this coach is asking is how should we respond to errors while we encourage the sort of risk taking that leads to mistakes. I want to address that from two perspectives.

Ourselves

The first thing we need to do is look at ourselves. By that I mean think about the words we use, our tone, and our body language. All three influence how players receive the message we’re trying to send them.

The words are the easiest part of that to manage. It’s not that hard to pick the right ones given a moment’s thought. That doesn’t mean we can’t run into trouble, though, especially in the heat of the moment.

A big problem I see coaches have is contradictory messaging between practice and competition. They say all the right stuff in training, but the pressure of competition gets to them. They start talking about reducing errors and taking fewer chances. Essentially, they shift from a long-term growth focus to a short-term results-oriented one. To exacerbate things, the tendency is for players to tighten up in those situations and play below their capabilities. So you’re losing on both ends.

And even if we’re able to bite our tongues when our team is making mistakes, our bodies might be sending other signals. Players are watching you all the time. You might be saying it’s OK to make mistakes, but if you’re shaking your head or spinning around or throwing your clipboard when they do, you’re contradicting yourself non-verbally. That leads to confusion and anxiety.

So make sure your actions match your words. Watch yourself on video from time to time to make sure that’s the case.

Others

We as coaches can be supportive of errors, but if those around us are not our message is lost. This applies to members of the team, other coaches, support staff, parents, media, etc.

In my experience, teammates tend to be the least problematic of this group. With some exceptions, they are pretty supportive of each other for the most part. Our bigger challenge is usually getting the individual who made the mistake to get over it and not see it as some kind of reflection of their value.

Assistant coaches and other immediate support staff (managers, strength coaches, trainers, etc.) should uphold the same error philosophy as the head coach. That means they too need to learn the same self-awareness, and it’s our job to see that they do.

Everyone else is largely out of our control. We can influence them – and we certainly should – but at the end of the day we can make them talk or act the way we want. That means we must be prepared to deal with stuff that goes against the tone we’re setting.

The key

They key in all of this is changing your focus from outcome to process. Focus on the effort and intention rather than the result. That will put you in the right mindset to allow words, tone, and body language to all line up in a fashion that supports errors in the pursuit in long-term development.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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