Old School Psychology

Make Failure Fun


Many of you have heard me talk about B.F. Skinner because I am very open to his style of coaching: Create a successful environment that does a lot of the work and let the coach fill in the gaps but let the creature explore their landscape openly without simply giving it instructions but actually allowing the creature to explore on their own terms. We do have to go back about 100 years before Skinner however to an earlier researcher that really gave Skinner and behaviouralists their platform.

Edward Thorndike was a well known psychologist that created the "Law of Effect” which simply says that when training an animal you simply make the animal feel good after a specific behaviour and it increases the chance that the animal will do it again.

What does this have to do with coaching gymnastics? Everything.

Remember, all athletes are animals at the end of the day, including the coaches so by remembering this simple Law a coach will not focus on the results of the behaviour, they will focus on the feeling that athlete has once the behaviour has been done.


It is very easy for a coach to get consumed by results in the here-and-now and forget about the long term results that can be achieved by not thinking about today’s results. From my experiences from doing many coaching clinics, coaches will tend to think that by highlighting the athlete’s successful skills compared to the non-successful skills, an athlete will get more motivated. Yes, highlighting successful skills and asking the athlete to remember those great moments does help but in reality, an athlete is going to fail more then they 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 simply 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 an older coach may think is appropriate. Show them how much you care as if you were a kid with your friends. This covers up the failed skills with friendship which is more powerful at the end of the day.

“Yes, oh my gosh, that was right there!”

“Ahhhhh man, so close, try again, try again”

Make A Fail Compilation: People love to laugh at funny wipeouts and by making light out of a failed attempt you can simply help keep the positive emotions turned on compared to reinforcing “failed attempt=BAD” You can’t just make a video of every single fail but using this technique to lighten the mood when appropriate really helps along with the other techniques to overall keep the atmosphere happy despite the results.

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 but in reality by making the athlete simply understand they have to fail to succeed, you can slowly change your athlete’s perspective about failure and they will learn to work with it and even will get energized by it if they think its 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 over time. Have a real conversation about that reality to help put failure into perspective and have the athletes understand, failure is actually a sign of improvement.

Reinforce The Rotational Pathway: When an athlete understands that all skills are really easy and the only thing to learn is “whats next along my rotational pathway” then ‘bumps in the road’ are not the concern. They will constantly 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 papers that were published over 100 years ago.

Keep your athletes involved in the sport by shifting the way they see failure. Everyone is a failure most of the time and that’s why we highlight the few instances where 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.


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