Are You Learning From Mistakes?

February 16, 2014 Jon Roy

To Err, or Not To Err?

Are we learning from mistakes?

We’ve had some very interesting coaching sessions over this past week while the Olympics have been playing out in the background.  In particular, one session we had involved a player who was working on a brand new skill and making a considerable number of errors.  It made me think about the role of errors in our learning.  Is it ok to fail when we train?  Is it ok to fail when we perform?  Should we always be trying to get it right?

As we watch the Olympics it is striking to witness the tremendous athletic accomplishments.  It seems that every event is filled with exceptional performances – and this is on the biggest of stages.  But then at the same time, every “personal best” in the games seems to be juxtaposed with the disappointment of a failed jump or stride for another competitor.

And the reactions to the mistakes are not consistent either – some athletes are in tears with disappointment when they fall short of their potential.  Others are stoic in their resolve to “learn” from the mistakes and move forward to a brighter future.

So unlike previous posts – where I have given a distinct point of view on an issue – for this week’s posts I would like to solicit your opinion on the question of making mistakes, or failing.

Option 1

Make Mistakes to Increase Learning

On the side of making mistakes, we have arguments like the one put forth by Daniel Coyle in his Little Book of Talent – “most of us instinctively avoid struggle, because it’s uncomfortable.  It feels like failure.  However, when it comes to developing your talent, struggle isn’t an option – it’s a biological necessity.” (Tip 17 – Embrace Struggle).  This is related to the view that developing skill is tantamount to forging and reinforcing neural connections through your body.  Struggle is critical because it paves new neural pathways.  Failure is necessary to stretch your abilities and to create the possibility for new (better) pathways in your nervous system.

Another view sees critique of failures as ego driven.  We just have to overcome our ego in the process of learning to appreciate the importance of struggle – even though failures may make us blush or feel embarrassed.   In this view – failure is equivalent to learning, and really the worst thing we could do as coaches would be to rob the learner of his failures.   In every failure lies the seed of our next progression, and with every failure we are becoming stronger and more certain.  Without failure we can never really evolve.  The important thing to realize, from this point of view, is that the emotional attachments we add to any failure (i.e grief, remorse, and pity) are all inventions of the mind.  We make those negative emotions surrounding failure up in our minds.

In these views, the failures we make are critical to defining the person we are becoming.  Proponents of this viewpoint argue that “the baby who stumbles the most is the baby who walks and speaks the quickest and clearest” (and with a few children of my own under the age of 5 I can certainly attest to the validity of this claim – It is so tempting to help an infant, especially my own son, as he tries to learn to walk – to save him/her from a stumble – but in doing this are we really helping them?)  Is it possible to show someone how to walk without showing them how to fall?

The same dilemma is found in the relationship between instructor and student, or coach and athlete.  As coaches we can work to shield our players from errors and mistakes, but are we really doing them any service when we omit the existence of failure?  Especially in golf, should we not be helping our players better appreciate the need for failure?  By making it easy, by always getting it right, are we really learning anything at all?

Option 2

Avoid Errors as Much as You Can

I have also heard arguments on the other side of the spectrum – the viewpoint that we should avoid errors when we train and that mistakes should be minimized.  This is a viewpoint that suggests that in order to properly condition our motor patterns, it is imperative that we perform the “right” action as frequently as possible.  Like a toboggan flying down a snow covered hill, the goal is to reinforce the pathway over and over until it becomes virtually impossible to deviate from that path.

One of the more interesting proponents of this viewpoint argues that our performance is dependent on the memories we have established through training.  If we have an equal number of failed repetitions as correct repetitions, then our mind will have a 50/50 chance when it comes time to perform.  The logic which follows is that the more we get things right in training the more chance we’ll get it right in performance.  In a world that sees the training of motor patterns as “competing memories”, we need to ensure that our body remembers the “right” move so that under pressure it will be more likely to call on that move from memory.  The less incorrect information you store in your brain the more consistently correct you will be when you perform.

Another point made on this side of the spectrum is that with every failure comes a degree of self-doubt, and that nothing disables performance more than the existence of self-doubt.  When we train, we should work to eliminate doubts altogether so that when it comes time to perform we can do so unencumbered by hesitation or doubt.  It would follow that our practices should be all about conditioning the right moves at high frequency, so that we build confidence and competence in unison.  Every time we get a movement wrong we increase our doubt that we can get it right, and in training we should avoid developing our self-doubt as much as we can.

Question for Discussion:

So which side of the fence are you leaning to?
Option 1 – Make mistakes when you train –  because they are what learning is all about and our bodies need to know what’s wrong in order to establish what’s right.
Option 2 – Avoid mistakes when you train –  to make more favorable memories and to reduce doubt.

I will reply to your comments as they come in,

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Comments (3)

  1. Ashley Ross

    Great question!!

    I believe it is really important to delineate practice sessions between skill development and game preparation.

    When attempting to develop skill, failure is critical; it provides the information as to the current level of performance and allows coaches to design practice environments that appropriately stress the organism (athlete).

    In response to stress (practice environment) an organism (athlete) will do one of two things, adapt (get better) or breakdown. This is where the skill of the coach is so important to design practice activities that engage the appropriate level of stress (what I refer to as “point of error”) into the practice environment for each athlete. When combined with objective and diagnostic feedback that is garnered through a process of reflection that is guided by the coach, the appropriately stressed athlete organically gets better through adaptation.

    The “Mindset” of the athlete (in Dweck’s terms, a “Growth Mindset” that sees failure as part of the process rather than a sign they lack a “God” given “talent”, referred to as a “Fixed Mindset”) is also vital for the athlete to develop when facing adversity (failures).

    When preparing to perform, immediately before a competition, the session should not be too stressful (difficult) but rather reinforce the athletes command of their game (assuming they know their game…another area for coaching) and skills so self doubt is eliminated and confidence heightened.

    Ash Ross

    • Thanks so much Ash – for the feedback and for the thoughts.

      I love how you’ve tied it to Dweck’s great work on mindset and I can see the tie between mistakes and growing for sure…
      Many of the comments I’ve received agree that in training it’s all about growth, but just before performing we need to be a bit more careful about mistakes…

      I also like how you draw attention to the need for coaching in a world of mistakes – if you are inevitable going to make mistakes it raises the need for coaches to guide the learning that comes from them…

      Thanks and I look forward to your thoughts in the future


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