The fear of failure and getting up one more time

We Make Footballers
27 January 2022


Slowly but surely, the fear of failure that has inhibited English football for much of the past 30 years is being washed away, and the change has come from the grassroots level.

At We Make Footballers, we believe that one of the most effective ways a child progresses is through learning from their mistakes. This is discovery learning, a concept that gained popularity in the 1960s thanks to an American psychologist known as Jerome Bruner.

Bruner wrote that: "Practice in discovering for oneself teaches one to acquire information in a way that makes that information more readily viable in problem-solving.” Essentially, he was championing the idea of learning by doing.

The problem with bringing discovery learning into the world of football is that it requires risk-taking and an overcome  failure – neither of which were deemed acceptable in a sport where even as recently as 20 years ago, the success of youth football was judged on results and results alone.

Back then, making a mistake in a game or training was likely to have resulted in being shouted at by parents or coaches on the sidelines. Players might have been punished for their errors or mocked, resulting in embarrassment. This bred an understandable fear of failure. 

Why would a child attempt to play out from the back when the safer option would be to boot it into touch? Why attempt a bicycle kick when there was a risk that you could end up flat on your face? 

Why try and pull off a moment of magic with a Maradona Turn to get out of a tight space when it might result in you losing the ball and getting an ear full from the manager as a result?

Players who are concerned about making mistakes will play with their body tense and only ever try things they know they are capable of. If you only ever try things you are capable of because of an anxiety of something not working out, how can you ever develop new skills or progress your existing ones?

The answer is you can’t. Take weightlifting for example. If a weightlifter lifts the same over and over again because they do not want to risk failing at the next weight up, then they will never become stronger. The only way to progress as a weightlifter is by trying to lift something heavier, in which case you have to accept that failure is likely along the way.

This is why We Make Footballers create an environment in which there is no fear of failure. When there is a culture in place whereby failure is accepted as part of the process rather than a big deal, then fear evaporates.

Mistakes are there to be learnt from rather than punished. Each player is stretched through small challenges which at first, they may not succeed with. Practice, perseverance and hard work however will eventually lead to success.

This success in turn helps further eradicate the fear of failure. If a child knows that they will master the skill eventually despite those initial struggles, then they have less anxiety about repeating the task and risking further failure.

To see the benefits of a nation of footballers who learn rather than hide away from mistakes, you only have to contrast the performances at major tournaments of Gareth Southgate’s England and the sides who have gone before.

The Golden Generation never progressed beyond the quarter-finals of a World Cup or European Championships. The players who were eliminated by Portugal in both 2004 and 2006 always seemed sucked of the inspiration and spontaneity that they showed for their domestic clubs whenever they pulled on the Three Lions.

That came from the pressure of playing for England and the fear of making a mistake. Rather than risk doing something out of the ordinary, they would play it safe. When penalties then came along to decide who progressed to the semi-finals, the nation’s longstanding fear of a shoot out took hold and the Three Lions were heading home.

Worse was to come in the second round stage at Euro 2016. Iceland played with a freedom that came from being the underdogs. Once England fell 2-1 behind, Roy Hodgson’s team became paralysed with fear. Nobody wanted to take a chance on making something happen for fear of Iceland heaping on further embarrassment.

Compare that to the 2018 World Cup or Euro 2020. England’s runs to the semi-finals and final of those respective competitions were delivered by players who had freedom and risk-taking was encouraged.

Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka felt free to express themselves on the biggest stage without the fear of failure. The result was one of the most memorable summers of English football ever.

What we are seeing now is the first generation of players representing England for who failure is not seen as a negative. They have no fear of it. We Make Footballers have been championing this approach since the business was formed in 2008.

There is now an endless supply of players coming through for whom failure is just a reason to get up and try again. When your child attends We Make Footballers, they are joining them on that journey with nothing to fear.