Don't Fear Failure: The Value of Letting Kids Test their Limits

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Matt Krumrie ()

Mark Reiland was an NCAA champion and two-time All-American for the Iowa Hawkeyes under head coach Dan Gable, but collegiate success didn't come easy for Reiland, especially that first year inside an Iowa wrestling room loaded with talent.

"There were weeks where I would only score a couple of takedowns," recalls Reiland. "Not practices, but weeks."

Now the head coach at Iowa City West High School, Reiland has coached 18 individual state champions and led the Trojans to four state dual meet titles and two traditional state team titles. Based on his track record of success, Reiland knows that the foundation and future of the sport is developed at the youth level, where it's important for coaches and parents to make the sport fun and teach the basics but to also push kids to overcome obstacles and accept new challenges. Like Reiland during his first year at Iowa, every wrestler is going to face difficulties, but learning how to confront and respond to those difficulties is where the real payback of wrestling comes.

"As a coach and parent, we need to take the emphasis off winning," says Reiland. "If kids are getting scolded for losing or making mistakes they will not step out of that comfort zone. Wrestlers need to learn to develop new techniques. Sometimes, you tell a wrestler 'you can’t shoot a high crotch this practice. We know you can do that, so we are making you develop something to go along with that.' If they are applauded for taking on a new challenge, then the others may want to follow.”

Anybody who has wrestled knows that failure is a critical part of the learning process, says Dr. Alan Goldberg, a sports psychologist who is also director of Competitive Advantage, an Amherst, Massachusetts-based performance consulting firm.

"It's not about the outcome," says Goldberg, who notes that the only way to learn is by making mistakes. "It's important to help kids not feel embarrassed, humiliated, or shamed when they fail. In order to get good at anything you have to have a high tolerance for failure."

Goldberg emphasizes using failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. “The way you go from a beginner to expert in anything is by making mistakes and losing,” he says. “Rather than using it as a way to show that you're inadequate, you want to use it as a source of very important information about what you did that didn't work and what you need to do differently next time to make it work.”

Jason Bross, a longtime assistant coach at Monsignor Farrell High School in New York City, emphasizes taking on new challenges with his wrestlers as well. These include short and long-term setting goals they can work on in practice, and in matches. 

"Establish ways to measure short-term progress and be clear on why their goals are important to them," says Bross. "Going back to these fundamentals is what will help them clear the obstacles they need to overcome. And, noting success when it happens will continue to motivate them through tough times."

Bill Kilpack, head coach of the Mountain Top Wrestling Club in West Jordan, Utah, says pointing out the positives of trying something new can encourage kids to continue to want to develop, even if they don’t succeed. 

"It might be something as simple as the wrestler scoring against an opponent that has beaten them over and over without giving up a point,” says Kilpack. “It might be that my wrestler was the aggressor, shooting first.  It might be that my wrestler was losing, but still attempted to score until the very last seconds of the match. I make sure that both the athlete and the parents understand that there are a lot of positive things that can happen during a match that indicate a bright future.”

Kilpack coached a wrestler who started in the sport at the age of 10. He was always undersized and would never win more than one or two matches a season. He always found words of encouragement even in the toughest of times. 

"I did my best with him and his mom to show how he had progressed each match," says Kilpack. "After matches I would point out the positives—he was first to attack, he didn’t get pinned, he scored, he put the kid on his back. Then we talked about how to capitalize on those moving forward." 

At one tournament this wrestler was pinned every match, but was recognized as the recipient of the tournament’s Sportsmanship Award because he competed with class and gave it his all. Over time he turned his failures into successes, eventually winning a total of five youth-level freestyle and Greco-Roman national titles. This wrestler is now out of college and still involved in the sport as a coach with the Mountain Top Wrestling Club. "When he wrote essays for his college admissions applications he wrote about how much he benefited from his experience in wrestling and that not only resulted in him being accepted, but receiving merit-based scholarships," says Kilpack.

As the old adages goes: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But the first step is not being too afraid of failure that you don’t even try. Reiland is a perfect example of that. 

"I went from dominating in high school to the bottom of the food chain in college," he said. "But you keep working and all of a sudden it’s one takedown a practice instead of one a week. Then you achieve multiple takedowns in practice and you gain confidence and the drive to improve. Each and every opportunity presented helps one grow and improve as a wrestler, even if you don’t realize it at the time.”