Embracing mistakes

Using your learning edge

Part 4 – Embracing mistakes

Jeff Mitchell – Community Sport Advisor – Sport Auckland

Working at your learning edge is messy. As you are working outside of your comfort zone you will probably be making a lot of mistakes. The key to learning from mistakes is how you respond to them. Having the right mindset and following a process for learning from your mistakes will enable you to grow from them, pushing your learning edge further out and increasing your ability to coach effectively. In this article we examine mistakes and their role in the learning process.

What are mistakes?

A mistake is something that prevents you from achieving an outcome, thereby causing you to fail. They are often due to a lack of knowledge or the inability to (consistently) perform a required skill. Mistakes may come about through using the wrong plan to achieve an outcome or by having the wrong intention in the first place (trying to do the wrong thing). They are often seen as something negative due to their association with failure. When looking at mistakes you need to examine the following:

  •          What was the objective? (What were you trying to achieve?)
  •          What was the outcome? (What was the failure?)
  •          What caused this outcome? (What was the mistake?)

In addition, you also need to look at your intention and your plan:

  •          Were you trying to do the right thing? (i.e. was your intended strategy likely to achieve the desired outcome?)
  •          Was your plan appropriate for what you were trying to do? (i.e. was it going to allow you to effectively implement the intended strategy?)

The following are some examples of mistakes a coach could make:

coaching mistakes

In the first situation, the coach has the right intention but the plan isn’t appropriate (the drills don’t work). In the second situation, the coach lacks either the skills to communicate effectively or the knowledge of what effective communication is. In the third example, the intention of the coach is wrong, as they are trying to correct something that isn’t actually going to improve their player’s performance.

Repeating the same mistakes over and over is not a good thing: it shows that you are not learning. It is much better if you can make a mistake, learn from it, and improve your performance as a result.

How are mistakes valuable?

You learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes. When you make a mistake and fail, you tend to look at what you need to do differently in order to succeed. Mistakes provide you with feedback regarding your actions or strategies, as you do not achieve your goal. When you are successful – sometimes despite what you do – you do not receive this feedback.

Mistakes can also raise your awareness of areas that you need to learn about. As a mistake is often due to a lack of knowledge, by looking at why you made the mistake (what knowledge you were missing) you are able to increase your understanding in that area. This will lead to fewer mistakes in the future. When you are running on autopilot you may not actually be using the most effective strategies. Mistakes may cause you to examine the strategies that you are using, helping you to identify new, more effective ones.

Clearly mistakes are not all bad. They provide the opportunity to improve your knowledge and increase the effectiveness of your strategies. You can expect to make a lot of mistakes when you are working at your learning edge. The most important factor in benefiting from the mistakes that you make is your attitude towards them.

The importance of your mindset

You need to have an appropriate mindset in order to be open to making mistakes and learning from them. A growth mindset is required to embrace your mistakes and then use them to improve your future effectiveness. It is important to not see mistakes as weaknesses which you must hide; rather, you should view them positively. By viewing them as learning opportunities you can choose to respond to them positively.

Your learning edge requires you to work with ‘focussed struggle’ – grappling with problems that extend you. This means that you need to challenge yourself to get into situations where mistakes will occur. To do this you must be prepared to accept responsibility for your mistakes and then make changes based on what you learn from them.

Taking responsibility

You will not be able to learn from your mistakes if you are not prepared to take responsibility for them in the first place. Some coaches have a tendency to deflect responsibility or place blame elsewhere. This could include blaming their players, the referee, the opposition, the environment or even luck. If you do not accept responsibility for your mistakes then you are not able to examine them to see what you can learn from them.

self reflecting on mistakesYou will need to reflect on your current attitudes towards mistakes. Are you open to admitting them? Do you examine their cause, or do you just try to avoid placing yourself into similar situations in the future? Do you beat yourself up for making them, or do you use them as motivation to improve? Raising your awareness of how you respond to mistakes will help you to respond more appropriately in the future.

A key theme of this article series is the focus on continuous learning. To achieve this you need to regularly assess yourself and ask how you can improve. This requires a growth mindset and the willingness to face your mistakes head-on.

How to learn from your mistakes

You can start to take steps to learn from your mistakes once you are open to acknowledging them. Before you dive in to correct a mistake you must first understand it, otherwise, you could just make it worse. You need to reflect on the mistake and understand why it has occurred; then you can start to decide what you have learnt from it and how to prevent it occurring again in the future. A useful process for learning from your mistakes follows three steps:

reflecting on mistakesStep 1: Reflection

To reflect on a mistake you should work backwards to identify the causal factors. What led to the mistake? Was your intention right? Was the plan appropriate for achieving this intention? What was your objective, and what was the outcome? What caused this deviation (between intended and actual outcome)? What knowledge were you lacking? Ask yourself questions that peel back the layers to the root cause of the mistake, so that you understand why it happened. Make sure you are honest in answering these questions – you won’t gain anything by pushing things under the rug.

Step 2: Analysis

Your next task is to look at the implications of what you have found. Based on what happened, what does this tell you about the area which you made a mistake in? For instance, if the way that you interacted with an athlete results in them resisting your coaching, what does this tell you about your communication? If you try to prepare your team for a game by giving them a high-intensity pep-talk and they become over-anxious, what does this tell you about effective motivation? Look at the implications and draw out the lessons that they hold.

Step 3: Action

An important final stage is to determine what you will do with the knowledge that you have gained. Using this knowledge will push the situation into your competency zone, allowing you to challenge yourself by attempting more difficult situations. This will put you back into your learning edge. You need to determine what you will now do differently to implement the learning. How will you approach the situation next time? What will you do to prevent the mistake from occurring in the future? How will you now coach better?

A good way to use your knowledge is to participate in a Community of Practice. This could involve sharing your mistakes – and what you have learnt from them – with a group of coaches. This allows you to learn from each other and will provide you with different alternatives to similar situations. They may even be able to suggest alternative meanings that you could take from the mistakes you have made, giving you more material to reflect over. The following example shows how this could occur within a Community of Practice.

coach meaning

Deliberately making mistakes

Having a process in place for learning from the mistakes that you make allows you to take advantage of them. You are able to accelerate your learning by deliberately making mistakes. This means that rather than waiting until you make a mistake – and fail – you can intentionally make mistakes to see if you can find more effective ways of coaching. In this sense a ‘mistake’ means doing something that isn’t the ‘correct’ way of doing things. It is a form of trial-and-error where you try something that goes against the grain. Taking this approach can help you to find new, more effective ways of doing things, and can also help you to learn more about the craft of coaching. Consider the following example:

deliberately making mistakes

It is important to note that deliberate mistakes should only be tried when the potential learning far outweighs the potential expense of the mistake. It goes without saying that the mistake should not put any players at risk. You may also want to explain to your players why you are making the changes to your approach.

Deliberately making mistakes – and reflecting on your learning – is a useful tool when you need to find a fresh approach. This is particularly useful when the ‘correct’ way of doing something isn’t getting the desired results. Perhaps you have a player that doesn’t respond to your coaching methods in the same way that your other players do. Maybe your usual way of coaching an activity isn’t helping your players to have success at it. If the ‘correct’ way of doing things isn’t achieving what you want, it is worth looking to see if a ‘mistake’ might fix it.

Deliberately making mistakes can also be useful when you wish to test your deeply held assumptions, to see if they are actually valid. These assumptions could be regarding what makes for effective coaching, what players respond to best, what is actually the ‘correct’ technique, or how best to motivate players. In the example above, Coach Gary assumed that the most effective way for providing a demonstration was for the coach to provide it.

You can test your assumptions using the following process:

  •          Identify your assumptions – what beliefs do you hold? Some of these you may not be aware of, meaning you will need to do some deep reflection
  •          Select the assumptions you would like to test
  •          Rank these assumptions – which are the most important to test? Which have the biggest impact on how you coach?
  •          Execute the ‘mistake’ – trying something that goes against the grain of your assumption
  •          Learn from the process.

To actually learn from this process (and from mistakes in general) you need to work through a series of steps to reflect on what has occurred. A good structure for doing this is to work through an after action review. Here you answer the following four questions:

  •          What did you set out to do?
  •          What actually happened?
  •          Why did this happen?
  •          What will you do next time?

This process will help you to pull out the learning that has been had and develop a plan for how you will use it. It may raise your awareness regarding the assumptions that you hold and the impact that they are having. You are able to put your learning into action by identifying what you will do next time. You should put this information into your learning plan: what are the actions you will take to further your understanding of the area or to implement what you have learnt?

Operating at your learning edge will see you making a lot of mistakes. Mistakes provide great opportunities for learning, provided you are open to using them. Reflecting on your practice, identifying what you learn from your mistakes, and planning how to incorporate this new knowledge will help you to continue to grow. In our next issue we will build on this theme by examining how you can learn both when you are winning and when you are losing.

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