How to Build a Team that Celebrates Failure and Vulnerability

Nov 01, 2021

We’ve all watched our athletes play scared. And it’s not pretty.

As coaches, we have to strike a balance. We have the responsibility to both have high standards for our athletes AND create a safe space to fail.

Because playing scared for the sake of a scoreboard is not the answer.

It’s a tough balance to get right, and it’s all too easy to lean too far in one direction.

  • If we have high standards without a safe space to fail : Our athletes play scared. They go for points over performance. They pass instead of shoot, revert to bad habits when the pressure’s on, spiral after making a mistake, and play reactively instead of proactively. The pressure to perform may even take a toll on their mental health.
  • If we create a safe space to fail without high standards : Our athletes don’t learn how to push themselves. They take their mistakes too lightly, don’t respect the game, and they struggle to reach their full potential as athletes.

So how do we do it?

How do we encourage athletes to perform at a high level in a way that still prioritizes their long-term mental health and performance? How do we look our athletes in the eye and tell them, “You’re better than this” while also creating a space that allows them to fail, take risks, and be vulnerable?

I won’t give away the ending, but I will say this: It’s possible. All It takes it a perspective change and a few proactive tools.


The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

The first step to de stigmatizing failure is to help athletes learn how to think about failure in a constructive way. A great place to start is by talking about the difference between guilt and shame.

Brene Brown describes the difference between guilt and shame as this:

Shame is a focus on self - i.e. I am bad
Guilt is a focus on behavior - i.e. I did something bad

As a coach, it’s absolutely vital that you help your athletes understand the difference between the two.

It’s okay for an athlete to feel guilt - Disappointed in themselves, upset they let the team down, aware that they made a mistake. Guilt can be a byproduct of self-reflection and high standards. But shame is tied to perfectionism and the fear of failure. Athletes that are ashamed will punish themselves for their failure and think that failure directly affects their worth. They’ll internalize their failure and take it on as a personality trait.

Guilt means I failed, while shame means I am a failure.


5 Ways to Normalize (and Celebrate) Failure

As a coach, the way you speak about failure and normalize failure will have a direct impact on your athletes. Below, we’ve listed 5 actionable tips to help you de stigmatize and even celebrate failure and vulnerability on your team.

1. Celebrate Intangible Wins

When I was in high school, I had bad free-throw technique. And although my bad technique was working for me, my coach knew my technique wouldn’t cut it in the big leagues. He saw the bigger picture and made me learn to do it the right way. When the pressure was on, all I wanted to do was revert back to the old way, it was safe, comfortable, and pretty accurate. But every time I stepped up and chose to make a shot using the new technique anyway… Well, THAT was a win.

Creating a culture that recognizes and celebrates intangible is about seeing the bigger picture. It means looking beyond the scoreboard and publicly recognizing intangible wins like trying new skills, showing bravery, executing tough plays, and being a good teammate.

When you celebrate the intangibles, you give your athletes the space to compete bravely and boldly without fear of failure.

2. Model Positive Behavior

Anytime you fail in front of your team, take it as an opportunity to model the behaviors you want to see in them. Because everything trickles from the top down.

For example, if you make a bad call in a game (we’ve all done it), own up to your failure. Don’t apologize for it, just acknowledge you made a mistake then make a plan for the future.

3. Create a Plan for Failure

The way you bounce back after making a mistake is a big indicator of your skills as a competitor. Great competitors know that failure is a part of competition, and have a plan for recovery. That's where the Mistake Ritual comes in.

The Mistake Ritual is an in-the-moment mental exercise that incorporates a reset word, hand sign, breath, and visualization to bring you back into the present moment after you make a mistake. It’s one of the most powerful techniques you can use to bounce back from mistakes, and is something that’s helped thousands of athletes and coaches over the years.

If you’d like to create your own mistake ritual, join us at our on-demand Mistake Ritual Magic Workshop. Make one for yourself and teach it to your team.

4. Practice Failure

My coach used to have us scrimmage in practice and intentionally make bad calls. Truthfully, these drills made my blood boil. But the more he did it, the better I got at managing my emotions in the moment.

Failure will happen in competition, so why not practice it?

5. Learn to Critique

It’s really hard to choose to reflect on the times you failed. Whether you’re reading an old journal entry about an interview you bombed or watching game tape of a brutal loss, everything in you wants to look away. But learning to acknowledge failure, study it, and critique it (without criticism) can catapult you to the next level.

Help athletes separate performance from outcome. Teach them to reflect after every game, win or lose, and write a list of things that made them proud and a list of things they need to work on. Remind them that failure creates a roadmap for growth, and the key to becoming a better athlete is right in front of them.


Discussion Prompts to Promote Vulnerability

Celebrating failure is a radical act of vulnerability. If your athletes do not have a healthy mentality around failure yet, they probably also struggle to be vulnerable. The two go hand in hand.

A great way to encourage vulnerability and normalize failure is by using prompts. Ask your athletes to write down their answer to the prompt and/or discuss it with the group. Start every discussion by sharing your own honest answer with them. Being vulnerable with your athletes will encourage them to share and make it clear that they’re in a safe space.

Here are a few examples of discussion prompts:

  • Tell me about a time you let yourself down
  • Tell me about a time someone didn’t like you
  • Tell me about a time you weren’t brave
  • Tell me about a time you felt misunderstood

Talking about these difficult topics as a team takes their power away and creates a culture of understanding. It reminds athletes that everyone is human and that we all have similar struggles, even the team captain, the star athlete, and their coach. It instills the understanding that failure isn’t something to be afraid of but is something we get to learn from.


It is possible to want to see your athletes accomplish their highest level of potential while upholding a safe space for failure on your team. By talking about failure, celebrating failure, and encouraging vulnerability, you can create a program that supports your athletes in all ways, on and off the field.

As athletes and high-performers we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. The recent conversations about mental health sparked by big names like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have made it more apparent than ever that we need to create programs that support the mental and physical health of our athletes. One way to start doing that is by de stigmatizing failure and creating a culture that encourages communication and vulnerability.

If you’re interested in reading more about the topic of failure, check out our previous blog, 8 Actionable Tips to Help You Build Resilience. And make sure to join us for our Mistake Ritual Magic Workshop to learn an actionable tool for bouncing back from failure.


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