Note: This blog post expands on an idea that I originally learned in a USBC Level 1 Coaching Class taught by Tom Little in Conroe, Texas

There is No “Wrong” in Sports

 The exchange is a familiar one between a young athlete and a coach or parent.  The athlete has a less than desirable result, maybe an off-line golf shot, a missed free throw, etc, and he or she turns to the coach and asks “what did I do wrong?”  Most times, the coach dutifully responds with an observation of some mechanical change that needs to be made.  The athlete then tries the suggestion, trying to make it “right” the next time.

“Wrong” is associated with shame, guilt and disappointment

On the surface, this may seem to be a relatively innocuous interaction.  The young athlete wants to improve and is asking for advice, and the coach is obliging.  But psychologically there is much more going on here.  From a very young age we are taught to always do the “right” thing, and to avoid doing “wrong.”  For a child, being wrong is laden with emotional weight: shame, guilt, disappointment.  Doing the wrong thing leads to punishment and scolding.  Our young athlete in this example was participating in a sport, and was trying his or her best to perform well.  For whatever reason, it didn’t work out optimally that time around, but the athlete did not do anything wrong , and to allow the perception of “wrong” is a disservice to the child and his/her efforts.  Cheating, intentionally hurting someone, and similar behaviors are wrong, but a young athlete playing a sport and striving to get better is never, ever wrong.

Athletes with unconventional styles can succeed

Every sport has a conventional wisdom about mechanics and form.  But at the same time, there are athletes in every sport who seem to go against every shred of that conventional wisdom but are nonetheless hugely successful.  One athlete that immediately comes to mind is the professional golfer Jim Furyk.  He has one of the least orthodox swings in the game.  It is not one that you will see taught on any video or in any instructional book.  In fact, the golf announcer David Feherty has described Mr. Furyk’s swing as looking like “an octopus falling out of a tree!”  But his success is immense: PGA Player of the Year in 2010; seven-time Ryder Cup team member, over $49 million in career earnings.  I don’t know about you, but to paraphrase a famous song, if Jim Furyk is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

How to answer “What did I do Wrong”

 So, as a coach or parent, how do we respond to the question “what did I do wrong?”  One response is “you didn’t do anything wrong.  You’re working hard, you’re looking good.  Let’s try this…,” and then provide the instruction.  Another suggestion is to praise some aspect of the athlete’s performance before they even have the chance to ask the question, and then provide instruction.  In this way, the young athlete is much more likely to see learning as a fun process, which will lead to greater enjoyment, higher self-esteem, and ultimately a higher level of performance.  As a coach or parent, you will know you have instilled the correct mindset in your young athlete when he or she stops asking “what did I do wrong?”  To quote Professor Weston H. Agor, “making mistakes simply means that you are learning faster.”