Welcome to Gymnastics: We Teach Kids How to Fail


Okay, hardly my best tag line ever.

I would not recommend you use this in your future marketing plans.

But it is true.

As the school year kicks off and many new and returning students come into our gymnastics academies, embrace and own one of the things we do best: we teach kids how to fail.

Sure, at gymnastics classes, from our littlest athletes who are just learning to walk to our teens who are about to take off for college, we do many good and wonderful things. And one of the best things we do is teach kids how to fail and fail and fail.

And I love it.

No I am not some sort of sadist who derives great pleasure in watching children struggle and suffer.   But I know that failure is a natural part of life and the learning process and far too many of us are terrified at the thought of it.

It makes sense that we fear failure. “A lack of success,” “the omission of expected or required action,” and “falling short of one’s goals” are just a few definitions of failure. None of those things sound too fun. Not succeeding feels awful. Nobody wants to let down, especially regarding things expected and required.   And, of course, no one wants to put their ambitions or dreams on the line to have them dashed by falling short.

But, if we stop thinking of failure as an event and start to think of it as a thought, we can do a lot to minimize the sting of failure and even begin to welcome it into our lives as a normal part of learning and improving.

When failure is an event, we don’t have control of it—it’s not our party. But when shift to failure as a thought; we control how we think about failure—because we control our own thoughts. Therefore, depending on how we categorize and process it, we can either use failure to our detriment or to our benefit.

And gymnastics gives us many great opportunities to help children learn how to process failure to their benefit. That is, if we are deliberate in our intention to do so.

Failing by itself does not necessarily magically teach these lessons. But coaches and parents can reinforce the positive side of failure if we are methodical in how we react to and talk about failing.

First, we can teach children not to fear failure. When failure is a normal part of their gymnastics class, they gain comfort with the idea that the world will not end because of a failure. When they fall off the beam at a meet and their coaches still care about them, their parents still love them and their teammates still support them, they understand that the people in their lives are a source of comfort not shame. This is why it is so vital that we the adults do not heap extra disappointment on to a child who is already trying to cope with coming up short.

Next we can help them understand that failure is a normal, healthy part of the learning process. We can point to all the times the best gymnasts in the world have fallen while learning new skills or have had bad competitions and prove to them that failing is not synonymous with being a failure. Then, when we help a child take a step back in a progression to fix a mistake we teach them that sometimes we need to pause and reevaluate when things are not going how we want them to.   We shift failure from being final to failure being feedback. As Henry Ford noted, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again. Only this time more wisely.”  In fact, we learn some of our best lessons from failure. As Tom Kelley of IDEO says, “Fail often so you can succeed sooner.”

We can teach children to change the language of failure. It is important that we move children away from phrases such as “I can’t,” “I give up,” or “I’ll never learn” to embrace ideas like “I can’t YET,” “I am stuck,” and “I need help.” Pushing children from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is a key ingredient to a successful learner.   Instead of seeing failure as the unsuccessful endpoint of a journey to their goals, failure becomes a tool that is used to reach goals.

We can help children understand that being comfortable with failure allows us to take more risks. Once we see that we can traverse the rocky waters of failing we are much more likely to take risks because we have the self-confidence that we can pick ourselves back up if we fall.

We can encourage children to use failure as a source of motivation instead of a source of discouragement. Learning to channel our discontent toward a healthy motivation of personal improvement is a wonderful thing.

 We can remind children that the sweet taste of success is seasoned by failure. Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor. As the great soccer player Pele said, “The more difficult the victory, the greater happiness in winning.”

We can use failure to remind children to be humble, to celebrate others’ success even when we did not experience our own and to serve as a checkpoint against our own efforts.   Yes, even the icky side of failure has great benefit. We learn valuable life lessons of humility and sportsmanship. We learn to come to terms of when we did not give sufficient effort. We learn that sometimes even when we try our best we don’t get what we want. As Bill Gates said, “It is fine to celebrate success but it is even more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

We can celebrate that it is through failure we receive the following gifts: perseverance, resiliency and grit. Like a callous that develops on a gymnast’s hand after swinging on the bars, failure has the potential to toughen up kids. We want children who will persist, who can raise up after falling and who have the strength of character. Failure, handled correctly, delivers those gifts.

Talk about failure as a concept instead of a definition. Talk about your own failures, how you navigated them and what you learned. Don’t overreact when your athlete fails. Treat it as a normal part of the learning process, comfort them and when they are ready (read: not crying) talk about how they can make a new strategy.

So, while the tagline “we teach kids how to fail” is not likely to take the marketing world by storm, it is just another great reason for kids to enroll in gymnastics.