Teammates of a soccer star would occasionally witness a strange sight: Ali falling while she ran through solitary drills on the training field. While the exhibition of one of the country’s top female players toppling over like a grade-schooler might seem surprising, it actually makes perfect sense. As skilled as she is, Ali was determined to improve, to push the boundaries of the possible, to be the best at whatever she does. The only way that happens is to build new connections in the brain – which means reaching, failing and yes, looking stupid.
Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid – in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes – is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing and reaching again is the way your brain grows and forms new connections. When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes – they are the guideposts you use to get better.
One way some places like PWSI encourage “productive mistakes” is to establish rules that encourage players to make reaches that might otherwise feel strange and risky – in effect, nudging them into the sweet spot at the edge of their ability. For example, players at Prince William Soccer often practice according to an informal rule: If a passerby can recognize a when a good shot has been taken, it’s been played too fast. The point is to ‘think and take one more pass than you think you need to make’ which produces patience and calmness in front of goal as well as reveals small mistakes, details I might add, that might have gone undetected, and thus create more high-quality reaches.
Businesses do it too. Google offers “20-percent”: Engineers are given 20% of their work time to spend on private, non-approved projects they are passionate about, and thus ones for which they are more likely to take risks. I’ve encouraged numerous players and coaches to ‘Buy In’ affirming they will take risks and make mistakes with training and techniques and tactics.
Whatever the strategy, the goal is always the same: to encourage reaching, and to reinterpret mistakes so that they’re not conclusions, but the information you use to navigate to the correct move.