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Fail Faster, Learn Faster


Written by Rob Browning, Head Volleyball Coach, Saint Mary’s College

My friend Keegan told me about a business model of an app company: We will Fail Faster than any other app creator.

The idea is that they will learn from their mistakes* quickly, abandon apps that aren’t showing promise, take what they’ve learned and move on. Other companies might be afraid to fail, so they hang on too long to ideas that are not successful. This means they delay progress. They are so afraid of failure* that they get stuck.

Mike Gervais of Pinnacle Performance, consults with the women’s national team. One of Gervais’ messages is the following:

You have a comfort zone in which you are competent and confident. Within your comfort zone are all the skills and areas at which you are highly proficient: passing on your left side, for example, or hitting cross court, or bump setting, etc.

The fixed-minded athlete (see Mindset–all of us have some fixed mindset traits within us) wants to stay within that circle of competency, or circle of comfort. Staying within the comfort bubble means you will rarely fail and you will appear competent and masterful to those around you. You will look and feel good. And you will delay learning and progress.

The growth-minded person eagerly goes outside her circle of competence. She instinctively practices on the edge of her ability level because she knows that is where growth will occur. She is willing to fail as the fastest course to growth and improvement. FAIL FASTER, LEARN FASTER. (Gervais called it “failing forward”.)

Recently an athlete who always served a jump spin serve, was learning a jump float serve. I was observing her and noticed that she was being very safe–afraid to really go for it–just trying to hit it in. It was already uncomfortable for her so she was tossing and contacting low and hitting it with her whole hand kind of like a jump spin serve.

As a very accomplished volleyball player, she was probably not comfortable with looking incompetent. She was failing occasionally (making errors*) but she was not getting anywhere because her mistakes were within a comfort zone. She wasn’t failing on the edge of her ability level. She wasn’t failing fast enough.

I talked to her about this and challenged her to toss and contact it higher and hit it harder with the heel of her hand. To make mistakes “going for it” in order to accelerate her progress. I asked her to hit some hard with the heel of her hand to feel what it’s like, even if it meant hitting it long. She did and failed occasionally, but she also hit some good solid floaters in the process. She quickly improved.

I’ve seen this process successfully played out in Tom Black’s tutoring sessions with the setters in USA’s training gym.

My assistants and I talked about this “failing faster” concept, in particular about the fear of looking incompetent. I believe such fear is a major obstacle to growth and improvement in sport. Everyone (most notably coaches and teammates) is seeing you fail and that’s uncomfortable–even scary. It certainly was for me as an athlete. I was, and still am to a large degree, very much about looking competent. I can think of times when I was focused on improving and okay with failing, until I thought someone was watching me, then I would retreat to my circle of competency.

Gervais explained that athletes need to practice outside of their circle of comfort, but compete within it. By practicing on the edge of their ability level they EXPAND THEIR CIRCLE OF COMPETENCY.

It is in practice, particularly in activities where they are simply getting reps, where they need to be on the edge of their ability level–outside their circle of competency. That is where learning occurs.

It is clear that a coach’s primary job in practice is to keep players on the edge of their ability level. To “push” them. Some of that will be asking them to mindfully practice things that are uncomfortable (an exercise in mental toughness). Other times, when they are competing in practice, we will be pushing them to be totally focused on playing to win, especially when circumstances are difficult (another exercise in mental toughness).

The players job is to do these things without our having to push them.

My assistant coach, Brent Crouch, has some great insights into the difference between failures, mistakes, and errors:

“I am still enamored by the following distinctions between failures, mistakes, and errors. Consider a hiker in the woods who arrives at several forks. The hiker makes errors when she mindlessly chooses one way or the other, and once lost, cannot remember the way back. The hiker makes mistakes when she carefully chooses one way or other, and when lost, retraces her steps and decisions and tries another route – thus learning the paths. The hiker fails when she runs out of gas and sits down. The roots of the three words fail, mistake and error are, respectively: fail – to lack, mistake – commit an offense , err – to wander.

“I don’t really care what we call these three classes of “negative” actions, but I think there is value in the distinctions. We want mistakes in order to learn. We want to fail often (as a muscle fails with fatigue – “lift to failure”) and grow stronger mentally and physically from it. And we want virtually no errors. No mindless wandering.”

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