Love Me..., Let Me Fail

Love Me Let Me Fail

To all parents out there: Carve out a half hour alone this weekend, and read the article “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” by Dr. Lori Gottlieb.  Dr. Gottlieb’s article highlights a critical lesson about growing up: it is OK to fail.  As a youth wrestling coach and former Division I athlete, I know that failures are opportunities for growth.  It is sometimes a good thing to experience a major failure, disappointment, or roadblock early in your life and parents need to let their kids have these experiences without intervening or extracting them from a difficult predicament.  I am not suggesting that you abandon your children when they are in trouble.  I do believe, and so does Dr. Gottlieb, that children need to have bad experiences as well as good ones to mature normally .

Parents must allow their children to experience sorrow, regret, pain, and disappointment at certain times to formulate proper coping skills and adaptation mechanisms for the future.  In the article, Gottlieb refers to this negative life feedback as a type of “mental inoculation” for unpleasant experiences.  If people don’t have these early vaccinations in their nascent years, they are poorly equipped to overcome adversity later in life.

Too many parents these days protect their children from negative experiences, and deprive their child of a part of the human condition.  It may not be such a bad thing if your child has an inexperienced, insensitive, or downright mean English teacher in 7th grade.  Rather than swoop down and extract them from that situation, maybe this is an opportunity for you to teach your child that they (not you) need to figure out a way to work with that teacher, learn the material, and get on through class.  Learning to adapt at a young age will better prepare them for the challenges that most likely will await them: a bad professor, a difficult co-worker, or a boss with a clashing personality.

Our human experience is NOT all happy.  In fact, some of it can be, and is sad.  Many times as a parent, we try to shield our kids from bad news to shelter them from our imperfect world.  These experiences are mere obstacles that make our life meaningful, and force us to adapt to events.  It is OK to feel sad sometimes.  It is OK to experience sorrow, regret, pain, and disappointment at times in our life.  These events make the other moments in our life more cherished and authentic.

Wrestling is the Crucible of Learning Adaptability

Sports teach kids many lessons.  The critical ones I believe are focus, determination and adaptability.  Failure and negative experiences are the catalysts for adaptability.  We will talk more about focus and determination in another dialogue.  Dr Gottlieb’s article focuses more on the adaptability portion of learning.

There is no sport more emotional than wrestling.  If you have ever seen your child wrestle a superior and highly physical opponent you understand what I mean.  Some of my most motivating learning experiences in sports were not the wins, but the losses- and I mean the bad ones-the painful, disappointing, big ones. These were events in my life that made me question myself, and forced me to dig deeper, work harder, adapt and become mentally tougher.

Dr. Gottlieb would agree that failure is something to be looked at as an opportunity for growth.  When something goes wrong, a kid needs to learn the skills necessary to quickly regroup, refocus and try again.  These are critical skills to have in any sport and more importantly in life.

In the face of adversity, sports teach you ways to improvise your plan. Sometimes you have setbacks which require you to alter your strategy.  These kinds of lessons, lessons of adaptability, cannot be taught in a classroom but are critical lessons in growing up.

Competition is Good

There is a lot of conversation exclaiming an overemphasis on competition in youth sports. Some of this is true, but I still believe that there is a role for competition.  In the right setting, at an appropriate level of maturity, kids do need to learn about winning and losing.  This balance requires the parental and coaching focus and that is why it is important to have quality coaches at a youth level.

Competition instills a desire for an athlete to get better.  A good coach however, will instill in an athlete a desire for personal excellence by getting a child to compete with themselves.  Every year I hide a mirror behind my back and ask each new kid (the veterans know the trick) who their toughest opponent will be this year.  Invariably they will mention a name of some state champion they are going to meet later in the season.  Then I respond by saying “No your toughest opponent is right here,” as I place a mirror in front of their face. (The man in the mirror)

If a coach can set that tone for a team, then the competitive focus is on personal improvement.  This way the kids strive for improving their own skills.  John Wooden, the greatest college basketball coach ever,   always told his athletes “Never compare yourself to anyone other than yourself.”  This way you control what is in your power and strive for your own personal excellence.

Earned Participation Trophies are Good

The only disagreement I have with Dr. Gottlieb’s article is the criticism of participation trophies.  I am not in favor of giving out trophies or medals at tournaments just because a kid shows up and plays.  These truly are meaningless.

But if a child joins a team and commits to a legitimate, rigorous training and competitive schedule, then I believe he/she does earn the right to receive a trophy at the end of the season. On our youth wrestling team, a PAWS wrestler who completes the season absolutely deserves a trophy.  They earned it by doing over 3,000 push ups, sit ups, and pull ups.  They have endured 30 grueling practices and attended 6-8 very long meets and tournaments.  That’s hard work!

I believe these participation trophies are well deserved and mementos of a season that the kids are truly proud of. I tell my kids that a PAWS trophy is a badge of honor.


Athletics are a crucial part of a child’s education and are equally important as academic pursuits.  While academics must be emphasized to youngsters, sports have great shaping ability and teach lessons that the classroom cannot. Sports amplify lessons by tying them to emotion. Emotion etches these pearls into our mind.  Sometimes that emotion is sadness, disappointment, regret, or frustration.  Kids need this experience just as much as they need love, nurturing, and encouragement.  I congratulate Dr. Gottlieb on an excellent discourse that will help me as a parent, coach, and as a person.

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