April Heinrichs: 'Embracing Fits of Failure'

By April Heinrichs

Why do we want to teach youth national team players to "embrace failure?"

The starting point is that players (and parents) need to be reminded that failure is part of learning. If you take a quiz in math and pass with a 100 percent, great, but it really only means you know how to solve the questions asked. You’re ready to take a more difficult test.

If you think you can play sports without making mistakes along the road, you set yourself up for a perfect storm of emotions and disappointments. Fear of failure -- or avoiding failure -- is a sure step toward stunting one’s growth.

If you fail at something in life, the key is to pick yourself up, learn from it and move on.

Failure is part of life and certainly part of sport. Embracing failure as part of learning something new is to know that whatever caused you to fail is your feedback.

This is why we believe it’s important for players to be good self-evaluators and become students of the game. They have to be able to answer “why” and “what." Why did I succeed? Why did I fail? What do I need to do to improve?

“Fits of Failure” are critical for success in taking on something new.

Take, for example, learning how to drive a long ball with the instep or being converted from a forward to a defender. If you try but fail, keep trying.

If you try but fail and quit easily, you will not improve. You may need a partner -- aka coach -- to provide feedback and input to improve, and then you need some time to repeat the technique or tactic over and over again until you see improvement.

It really is that simple: You need the desire to improve, the time spent learning/growing/failing/improving, combined with feedback from a coach, and then the repetitions and perseverance toward steps of success.

My father use to say, “The word can’t should be removed from the dictionary. It’s the most negative and self-defeating word and message out there.”

That doesn’t mean one succeeds at everything one tries. I certainly will never be 6 feet tall, but I can certainly find another way to reach that object.

Failure is critical for an athlete’s success. Here is a great quote from Michael Jordan, who was cut from his 8th grade basketball team:

“I’ve missed more than 900 shots in my career. I’ve lost more than 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning last shot and I missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I have succeeded!”

As U.S. Soccer’s Technical Director and U-18 national team coach, I’m always watching and evaluating players to assess their threshold to endure failure.

I’m looking for which players fail and yet keep going; for which players fail and can laugh at themselves; for which players fail, go away, work on it and come back better.

If I see a player who lacks the ability to embrace fits of failure, I worry about her long-term potential in the U.S. women’s national team program.

We fail all the darn time -- we have to in order to improve. Now that I think of it, and after more than 25 years in our program, embracing failure on a daily basis is one of our secret ingredients!

Give yourself permission to try something over and over again, fail over and over again, and see the steps to improvement until you can do it. Enjoy the journey as well!

(April Heinrichs, as a player, captained the USA to the 1991 Women’s World Cup title and scored 36 goals in 46 U.S. appearances. She won three NCAA titles at the University of North Carolina. Her tenure as the U.S. women’s national team coach in 2000-2004 included a gold medal win at the 2004 Olympic Games. Before that she served as Tony DiCicco’s assistant when the USA won the 1996 Olympic gold medal. She has been U.S. Soccer’s Technical Director since 2011 and is coach of the U-18 national team.)
4 comments about "April Heinrichs: 'Embracing Fits of Failure'".
  1. Scott Rosberg, October 25, 2013 at 2:05 p.m.

    At Proactive Coaching we have said for years that athletics is basically public failure. Kids need to learn that mistakes are the lifeblood of learning. However, a critical piece to this is the coach. In order for us to create "fearless competitors," we must get our players to trust us. Kids generally don't have a lot of self-confidence. In order for a kid to risk failure in public (games or practice), they must trust the person who is asking them to risk that failure. So, how coaches respond to players' mistakes is a key to how much failure they will be willing to risk.

    Coaches need to embrace and dignify mistakes that players make at full attention and full effort. Mistakes made with less than full attention and effort are violations of standards and behavior and need to be treated as such. But when kids do exactly what they have been told at full attention and effort and they still fail, great coaches embrace them and let them know that they did the right thing, and the next time they need to do it the same way. Eventually, they will succeed, for they are doing things the way they have been taught in order to lead them toward the success they seek.

  2. Lee Dunne, October 25, 2013 at 2:42 p.m.

    This is so perfect. I want every parent involved in youth Soccer, and any other sport for that matter, to know how important this is.
    The Michael Jordan quote is fantastic.
    Thank you for this!

  3. Daniel Clifton, October 26, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.

    What a great article. The quote from Michael Jordan is so appropriate. How can you appreciate success without first experiencing failure? How can you really learn to win when you haven't first learned about losing? This should be required reading for each parent of a child involved in competitive soccer.

  4. Tim Glowienka, October 26, 2013 at 4:18 p.m.

    Great article, April! Love the part about "can't." My dad did the same thing when I was a kid. He used to have a saying, "Can't means I won't."

    To echo your point about becoming a great self evaluator, players (and coaches) must learn how to ask great questions. Questions that are empowering. Because questions direct focus, and focus determines how you feel or what type of state you're in. Ask yourself a poor question, and you put yourself in a poor state. On the other hand, ask yourself an empowering question and you can get into a positive state.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications