It’s a loaded title containing loaded words isn’t it? Nobody likes to make mistakes and nobody likes to fail – it’s far more satisfying watching others do that from a position of safety – but failure and mistakes are utterly essential to us as athletes, coaches and, well, human beings if one has a desire to improve.
We need to reframe mistakes, to embrace mistakes, value mistake and make them much more huggable. They are, after all, our broken friends.
One of the most impactful quotes I’ve come across, and something that helped me view mistakes not as embarrassing little blighters to be hidden away but as a vital component for advancement in pretty much any sport involving technique, comes from Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’. In it he says ‘purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Progress is built, in effect, on the foundations of necessary failure.'
In short, to improve you must try to do things you can’t already do and be prepared to get them wrong. By doing so, and by watching others try the same thing, you either learn how to do them, or how to do them more effectively. The coach’s job here is to ensure a technique is described and demonstrated correctly, broken down into its component parts if necessary and athletes are given the opportunity to practice, to make mistakes and, critically, learn from them.
Creating that ‘free to fail’ environment is way harder than demonstrating a technique but, I would argue, equally important. Of course, one way to start is by reframing mistakes using Syed’s terminology. In addition, something used frequently in business in Change Management is the concept of a ‘rubber room’ – anything that is said or done within the confines of a coaching session, does not leave the room – it stays confidential to the people involved. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, right?
Mistakes aren’t bad – they are an essential pedagogical ingredient and creating an environment in which riders feel comfortable enough to try new things and ‘balls them up’ is crucial. In my experience this can be more of a challenge when coaching those who have come to cycling ‘late’ often after having reached a level of proficiency in other sports when they were younger. Adults tend to be more self-conscious than kids and less likely to lose their limiting inhibitions when indulging in ‘play time’ on the bike.
Once you’ve got a group of people comfortable with asking ‘stupid’ questions and happy to try new things in front of others knowing they may balls up, you’ve created an environment of openness, trust and platform to learn. That is a truly beautiful thing. A state where people feel free to express themselves and try things that are new to them in a supportive environment is a great platform for progression. It works with a bunch of riders on a cycling circuit, just imagine what could be achieved in business or politics if people felt free to say what they thought and try new things? Crazy thought...
So, the next time you make a mistake, don’t try to marginalise it, pick it up, give it a little squeeze and see if there’s maybe something you can learn from it. And remember, if you’re not making mistakes, there’s a chance you’re not trying hard enough.
Rich Smith has made many mistakes, amongst them congratulating a women on being pregnant who had merely gained a little weight and attending the wrong funeral. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.