In the famous scene from Apollo 13, the mission flight director is listening to all the challenges that exist in getting the Apollo 13 astronauts safely back to earth. He instructs every one of the engineers to get to the most granular level needed to find a solution to their problem. He famously says “Failure is not an option!”. I certainly agree with his approach during that moment when lives were on the line. The engineers needed to hear that from their leader. They needed to be pushed with that belief. And because they had that belief, the crew made it back home to see their families when others thought there was no way. Failure was not an option in that case. But when raising and coaching kids, I disagree.
I want to offer a different perspective as it pertains to learning and teaching young people. This perspective typically applies to less life threatening, but no less important, situations. I would say that failure is not only a viable option, it is the solution.
My oldest son plays baseball. The summer entering his freshman year in high school, the high school baseball team had summer workouts for all players that wished to tryout for the team. The workouts were from 6:30 AM – 9:00 AM Monday through Thursday throughout the month of June. As a younger boy, he normally would get up on his own with the assistance from an alarm clock and get ready for school without his mom or me having to badger him to get out of bed (like my mom had to do with me. Oh the irony!). As he has grown into a teenager, that spryness has taken a hit. He still does get out of bed on his on, but with a little later start.
When the first day of workouts came, he was up, dressed and ready in plenty of time for us to get to the field a little early. The rest of the week, the same thing. All going great. As we entered week 2, things slowed down. The alarm would sound, seconds later it would be muted, and the typical squeaky mattress was silent. That week required me to go up to his room and rouse the savage beast; encouraging him to get up or we would be late for workouts. There were a few mornings where he had to run from the parking lot to the field in order to be on time. As we entered Monday of week 3, the morning ritual was becoming a habit fast. Alarm sounds, alarm turned off, no squeaky mattress, 10 minutes passes by, I get more frustrated every silent minute, walk upstairs to provide sarcastic encouragement to get up, reminding him that we do not want to be late. On this particular morning, I entered the dark, silent room. As I provided my encouragement, his response was argumentatively “I’m up! I’m up!”. Dark silent room, 14-year-old boy lying flat on a bed under the cover with 5 minutes remaining before we have to leave is not UP to me. We commenced to arguing whether he was up or not. Just the fact that I had been drawn into an argument with the proof lying literally still and dark in front of me proved that I was in trouble. We made it through that encounter and he made it to workouts a minute or two late.
As I drove back home, I continued to be bothered by the whole encounter. What I realized bothered me so much is probably something that bothers a ton of parents and coaches of teenagers. I was having to argue with him to do something he was supposed to want to do. I was willing to sacrifice for him but he wasn’t willing to sacrifice for himself. As parents and coaches, we have to realize our kids will never be successful just because we want it for them. This is their dream, their desire. They are the ones that are putting in the work and reaping the possible reward, not us. You can't push a wet noodle uphill and you can't push a teenager/young adult towards something they don’t love. That goes for us all actually!
I almost corrected a word I wrote above as I described the possibility of being late for practice, but I left it. Look back at the top of the previous paragraph for the words “late for workouts”. Now go back a few more words. I said “We”. This is the problem we make as parents. We take ownership of something that is not ours. In the name of “teaching them discipline”, “supporting them”, “pushing them to be their best”, we take on their responsibility rather than teaching them responsibility. And here is the other hidden, rarely talked about reason … if they don’t get to practice on time, it makes us look like bad parents. If they don’t play great, I am a bad coach. We sacrifice our own kid’s development for our reputation. We have to stop and ask ourselves, is this about them or us? I know I just stomped on a lot of toes, but let’s admit it and start doing something about it. Here is what I did.
The next morning, I was up early as I normally am reading on the couch. Just like clockwork (well actually it wasn’t like clockwork, it was clockwork!) the alarm sounded. Staying true to form, the alarm sounded for a few seconds, was turned off, and silence reigned. 10 minutes passed. No sounds. 15 minutes passed. Silence upstairs in the dark cave. Now at the 20 minute mark, we were supposed to be pulling out of the driveway. As I sat quietly enjoying my coffee, I was determined this morning to try a different approach to learning that I had never tried to this point, especially with this level of potential consequences.
Let him fail!
At this point, I sent the coach a text message explaining what was going on and whatever consequences he earned, I completely supported. The clock struck 6:30 PM and still no sign of the beast. And here is where it got a little dicey! At 6:35 AM, my wife came out of our bedroom. She looks at the clock, sees me sitting calmly on the couch, knows sleeping beauty is in his room, and asks me what is going on. I calmly tell her that baseball has to be his dream, not ours. If he wants to excel at it, he will learn to do the things it requires because HE believes it’s important, not us. We will be here to play a supporting role where he needs us, but he is running this show, not us. “But what if he doesn’t make the team because of this?”, she says with fear and agitation at me. “First of all, I don’t think this one event will cause him not to make the team and second, if it does, this lesson will probably be more impactful than I intended”. I love my wife. She trusts me more than I deserve sometimes. I can tell this does not feel good to her AT ALL so she worriedly walks back in the bedroom. I never asked her but I guarantee she prayed that he would still make the team and not hate us forever!
Take note, as coaches and parents, we have to be willing to take risks for our kids’ sake! We have to stop coming to their rescue every time they mess up. How are they going to ever learn about life if they do not get to experience the consequences of their actions. Is this easy to do? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Is this risky? ABSOLUTELY. But it is a risk we have to be willing to take to teach young people a lesson that will serve them the rest of their lives. I would gladly sacrifice 1 year of freshman baseball for a lifetime of purposeful, disciplined living for my son.
At 6:50 AM, I hear frantic squeaking of the bed and then a loud & clear “Oh Crap!”. I can tell he has jumped to his feet. He runs out of his room, looks down at me sitting quietly on the couch, and I guarantee 99.9% of parents or even kids know what he said next.
_____________________. You are exactly right. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” HA! I could tell he was worried, but to his credit, he rushed to get ready and was willing to face the music. He didn’t avoid the potential consequences. I am truly proud of him for that. This is the moment I realized he may want this as much as we want it for him.
I know you are dying to hear if it really worked. I can say this … Learning Sequence Commenced, to pull back in the Apollo 13 reference. Failure IS an option. It is not only an option; it is THE solution. The rest of the summer, I did not enter his room before we had to leave. He was up and on time every workout day. And when school started, it carried right over. He knows his responsibility and our responsibility. He is responsible for getting up and being ready. My and my wife’s responsibility it to prepare breakfast and drive him to school. It is a beautiful thing.
He now knows what responsibility looks like. (Oh by the way, his little brother who is 3 years younger than him is getting a front row seat in class too!) They know that we love them and will support them in their dreams and desires. But we are not going to make those dreams and desires happen for them. And we are not going to come running to their rescue every time they mess up. Consequences are a much better teacher than I am. Yes, it is scary. But if we truly love our kids and the kids that are entrusted to our care as coaches, we must be willing to let them fail. And we must let go of the judgement we cast and we feel as adults when our young people do fail. And as we learn and implement this together, we will admire parents and coaches for their approach rather than scorn them while own kids are babied down the red carpet on their way to Dependenceville.
In what ways are you holding people you serve and lead back by not letting them fail?
Failure is not only an OPTION, it’s the SOLUTION!