How many times did you celebrate mistakes in your last practice? Last season?

Often times as a coach and teacher, I have witnessed the frustration of the mistake. The stick slams the ground, the head goes down, the mind goes to an alternate dimension. 

I have debated with many coaches on whether to let them play on or to stop play and highlight the event. As I like to coach younger players, I find it advantageous to blow the whistle and make a brief point if there is a “teachable moment.” Young minds won’t remember the circumstances if you wait to mention it at the end of practice.

There are a few other benefits that come with this change in philosophy. Here’s an example:

We’re doing a footwork drill and Henry slips and falls because he is going too fast. He loses the ball. Some players laugh at his folly, some comment, Henry slams his stick, and my whistle blows.

I pull all of the players together and to their surprise, I am going to reward Henry! I praise Henry for the following: He pushed his body and skill to the limit. How else is he going to know where the limit is? Isn’t this really the reason we practice?

I highlight the trust and effort that he has given to the team to improve by finding the edge. I remind all of the players that they too are going to make mistakes and that mistakes are the only way to find the edge. Within seconds, the drill proceeds, and all of the players are going faster and pushing harder. Some even begin trying to slip in hopes that I will point them out as well. Although the latter is not the goal, I am confident that in seeing this behavior, the message and the lesson were received.

The earlier we celebrate the mistake, the earlier the flushing ritual begins. Teaching players to leave mistakes in the past is difficult. I am often bothered by a loss for as much as a week. If I’m honest, some of those losses have never truly gone away. Teaching players to flush the mistake and get on with the job at hand is predicated on how you the coach handle the player’s mistake.

Celebrate mistakes now and the trust between player and coach is strengthened. The true benefit of being a Double-Goal Coach is the ease with which trust and commitment can develop between player and coach. By celebrating the mistake, you let all of the players know that you respect them, and that you know mistakes are part of the game. If you celebrate the mistake in a truly positive manner, they know you have their backs.

When I stopped focusing on mistakes in games and stressing them more at practice, I had players whose emotional tanks were always topped off. They were ready to give me every bit of focus and effort that I could hope for come game day. Even with an admittedly huge ego about wins and losses, I’ve found that Double-Goal coaching principles (coaching for wins and life lessons) are a lot easier to adhere to and ultimately the best way to achieve success.

Almost all players want to please you the coach. Regardless of the antics that they use to hide their mistake or weaknesses, they want to do it right. The caring coach is mindful of this basic fact and builds a relationship based on this positive starting place. When I make a bigger deal about a mistake in a positive manner than a goal or an assist, I think they get the notion that mistakes are okay.

How we discuss the mistake now will ultimately impact the effort that the player will give to eliminate future instances. I know it sounds utopian, but it works!

Wendell Lee is the director of programs at US Lacrosse. Suggest topics for future parent blog posts in the comments section.