Let Kids Fail

LET KIDS FAIL — It’s How Young Athletes Learn

Guest Blog by Laurie Bell from Heja

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Sport’s toughest moments teach children the most — if parents & coaches can offer them the freedom to fail

A friend recently shared the frightening story of a team of 7-year-olds being yelled at by their coach for 10 full minutes following a loss.

Frightening, maybe, because the same story repeats itself across the youth sports world.


John O’Sullivan is on a crusade to eliminate this type of negative, so-called coaching.

A former Division 1 College Soccer coach turned bestselling author, speaker and founder of Changing the Game Project, John travels the world teaching parents and coaches “how to raise happy, high-performing young athletes.”




His project’s mission:

  • to help create positive sporting environments for all young athletes
  • to return youth sports to our children
  • to put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball’

How? One critical message John preaches to parents and coaches alike is the importance of allowing young players the freedom to think for themselves and to fail for themselves.


I caught up with John, an American, on his tour of Australia, where audiences included the national football federation and the Australian government.

‘Development is all about making mistakes’

“Youth sports is supposed to be about development, right,” says John, a former pro soccer player. “And development is all about making mistakes and learning from them.”

“Playing soccer, or hockey, or basketball requires problem solving. That’s why for coaches it is absolutely critical that you let players figure stuff out for themselves.

“The intelligence has to be on the field not on the sideline. If a coach solves all the problems from the sideline, sure that might breed short term success but there will be no long term learning for the athletes.”


Young athletes need to see positive body language’

Example: in a soccer match, a player gives up possession to an opponent who charges upfield and scores. As a coach, you’re frustrated. How do you react?



The game will teach the kid whether they made a good choice or not,” says John, simply.

“When an athlete makes a mistake and turns to the coach they need to see positive body language. Seeing negative body language, getting subbed out of the game or screamed at by the coach seriously hurts development.”

“Some kids you can address on the field and some you can take a quiet word with on the side. The art of coaching is realizing the difference between who needs what and delivering the appropriate message in the appropriate way at the appropriate time.”



The real role of the post-match team talk

Choosing your words carefully on the sideline is one thing, but what about after the final whistle?

When their teams lose and athletes repeat the same mistakes over and over — or fail to execute anything they learn in practice — coaching frustrations again run high.

A coach’s purpose is to teach and develop players, but is the post-match team talk a good environment to achieve this?

“Personally, I feel like the coach who screams and yells after the game, it’s like when someone throws up — maybe they feel better but everyone else feels worse!” explains John, vividly.

“Especially when the result goes badly, when your players are going to be feeling pretty lousy anyway.”

“After the game when emotions are running high, ask yourself: what are you actually accomplishing by shouting and dumping information on them? It certainly isn’t making them feel better. And I don’t think it makes them play better.”

John’s advice? Wait.

Wait to deliver more thought-out, analytical and ultimately helpful feedback at a later date — preferably the next training session.

“Players are actually ready to learn then and will take that input on board far better — and coaches can probably deliver it far better and far less emotionally.”

‘Let the athletes talk’

Luca Gabriel, Head of Youth Development at Worcester City FC, subscribes to a similar school of thought.

However, Luca is big believer in the value of post-match communication. On Luca’s team, though, it’s the players who do the talking.

Luca Gabriel, Head of Youth Development at Worcester City FC, likes to ask players for their input

Even if the game’s gone badly, I stay calm and simply ask my players questions,” says Luca, who oversees the English club’s under 12 to under 21 programs.

“I ask, what went wrong? I listen. I ask others for their opinions. I keep it a debate. Then I simply say, ‘Okay, good. Let’s learn from it. See you on Tuesday.’”

Of course, losing still stings. And sometimes emotional reactions are unavoidable. “It’s human, it’s who we are,” says John.

But this doesn’t excuse yelling like a drill sergeant at a team of fragile, beaten 7-year-olds. Not only is this behavior unfair, as John points out, it’s also totally counter-productive.

Disappointment can be a good thing

In his speeches, he is quick to remind coaches and parents that, while defeat hurts, failure shouldn’t always be perceived negatively in youth sports.

“If we want our children to develop resilience and grit then they will need to face adversity from time to time.”

“Sport is an incredible venue for children to face adversity and learn to deal with disappointment. They find stuff out — what can I learn from today to help me be better tomorrow?”

Children dream of scoring goals, winning trophies and boasting hard-won gold medals. But at times when success is not forthcoming, coaches must fight the urge to fix it all.

Young athletes learn the most when given freedom to figure out tough sporting situations for themselves.

When they’re denied this freedom it’s not the athletes but the coaches who fail.


  • Hejia is committed to creating safe, positive environments for youth sports teams through its free team communication and management app.

You can download the Heja app by clicking here or read more on Heja’s website here

Many thanks to Laurie and Hejia for sharing the blog

All copyrights reserved for Heja

The Sporting Influencer

John O’Sullivan is the founder of Changing the Game Project. You can watch his speech, “Changing the game in youth sports,” for TEDxBend here:


One thought on “Let Kids Fail

  1. Great article… agree totally with the points made. Delivery again it comes down to the coach. A huge challenge with volunteer coaches who come from a variety of bachgrounds in my sport (GAA). We have a handful of fulltime coaches who we expect to be professional and proactive. But nurturing people who volunteer to let kids play and get away from rigid drill like sessions is difficult but necessary.


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