| Coaching Kids to Fail

Author / David McKercher

3-5 Minute Read

When I began my career in the private sector as a strength and conditioning coach I told myself that I would find a way to make what I do be lasting, impactful, and about more than just the clang & bang.  I knew from experience that the Iron had lessons to share, but what wasn’t clear at the time was how the stress applied through the use of the weight room specifically carried over to the rest of life and could have important consequences for the rest of life. Hundreds of athletes later, I began to see and find ways to incorporate and make connections between the failures, struggles and successes in the weightroom, and how those interactions and experiences could positively transfer to life outside the weightroom, in ways that are both significant and poignant.

To set the scene, Let me give you some insight into a conversation I have about twice a week with my clients. What follows is not verbatim, but it is close. 

13-18-year-old athlete: “Hey coach, I was looking at my working weight for the deadlift today. Last week was hard, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to get all 5 reps today. Can I just do 3 reps?

Coach: Well, let me ask you a question. Why 3 and not 5?

Athlete: (already prepared for their response!) Last session was really hard, and I barely got the reps. I was able to get them, but I don’t think I can get all 5 today. So, can I try 3, and then if I get those do 2 more?

Coach: Why 3 and not 5?

Athlete: I don’t know… it’s heavy, and the set of 5 I did before this was HARD, and it wasn’t even my working weight… I’m just scared… I’m afraid I’m going to fail. I don’t know if I can get 5, but I know I can get 3. So, I want to do 3, and then if that goes well I’ll do the next two reps. 

Coach: First off, of course you can. But just hear me out for a second…”

Coach: *Pulls out script…

“First, it’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to feel nervous, anxious, and afraid. That is completely normal when you are doing difficult things. When you are doing things that you have never done before. When you are attempting something where the outcome is uncertain and may end in failure. How could you not feel those things?!

You are asking yourself to willingly do something that you know firsthand from the months (YEARS!) of training you’ve been putting in will be incredibly difficult, you know it is going to be hard and that you may fail. THAT is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Those feelings are normal, and they will never go away, they will always be there. What is important is how we interact with and navigate those emotions, especially in difficult times and in difficult situations. 

Athlete: Ok, well, can I just try 3 and if that goes well do the last two reps?

Coach: Hear me out.  I understand your thinking. 3 is attainable, you have a certain level of certainty that you will be successful. That’s ok. You’re taking the safe option and that is completely sensible. But you have to remember it’s about whether or not we take the shot, not whether or not we score.

You’ve put in a lot of work and effort to get to this point, you’ve had these moments before, and we’ve overcome them. The only difference is this number is bigger, the task at hand is exactly the same. All I ask is that you try. 

Try one rep. 

And then another. 

And then another, all the way until you get to 5, or you DON’T. But when the dust settles, you can walk away proud, feeling accomplished- knowing that you didn’t let adversity, fear, anxiety, and difficulty be the reason you failed. You did not let those things stop you from attempting something you could accomplish. You have prepared for this, so let’s not leave until we see what we can accomplish!  

Athlete: Ok, I’ll try 5, but can you watch to make sure I’m Doing it right. 

Coach: Always.” 

Do the Right Thing or Do the Easy Thing

I own and operate a facility called Train608 in Madison, WI. We see 60-100 middle to high school athletes each week. This is a conversation I have at least twice a week. You can ask any of our athletes and they will 100% of the time tell you yes, we’ve had that conversation. Of the many important lessons our athletes are exposed to, one of the most impactful, and lifelong is learning how to confront, manage, and navigate fear, adversity, difficulty, and failure. 

Every day these athletes are presented with a choice: do the right thing or do the easy thing. Each time they do the right thing, whether or not they succeed, they move  forward. It’s one of life’s most important, and often avoided lessons: through failure and adversity comes growth. Through failure and adversity comes antifragility, and an ability to withstand the storm. People that persevere, overcome adversity and difficulty in life tend to be the people that are successful in life. This idea, those lessons, is taught every day in weight rooms and on sports fields around the globe. It transcends the barbells squat racks and playbooks. It permeates our existence throughout our lives. It is a universal truth: life will be hard. “Nobody is gonna hit as hard as life” a young boxer from Philly once said, “but it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Failure Is a Skill

So how do we teach this lesson? How do we develop this skill? How do we give these young people the opportunity to hone their ability to confront, manage, navigate, and use to their advantage things like adversity, difficulty, anxiety, fear?

We set them up  and then we let them fail…  

“We let your kids fail” is probably NOT what parents want to hear when they drop their kids off  at a training session or practice. These words can send fear into the hearts of athletes, parents, and coaches. We train for the W, why would we embrace the failure? Why would we have failure in our crosshairs?  

Simple, through failure in a controlled and supervised setting under a bar, in a weight room or in the arena of sport we can prepare these kids for life, or better yet we can prepare them to manage what life will throw at them. 

Earn Your Failure

In order to be successful this process MUST be front loaded. Coaches must develop proper movement patterns over a significant period of training that allows the athlete to develop intramuscular and intermuscular coordination while building muscle, increasing hypertrophy, power, and speed. This is not a situation where a kid walks through the door and then we pancake them with the heaviest bar we can find and say “See! That’s what failure feels like”. 

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No, We make them earn their failure, so they  really know what failure is. This process is a linear progressing one of increased load, intensity, and movement competency. Over time, through exposure to the training in a safe, structured way athletes move along the path towards greater self-confidence, an increased ability to manage fear, anxiety and stress, and are overall more confident in themselves and their abilities. They feel good about themselves and what they have accomplished. 

 The concept is simple: exposing young people to difficult situations and teaching them to overcome those challenges. It is the most important, rewarding, and meaningful thing I do as a coach.

Larger lessons of hard work, perseverance, managing fear, anxiety, depression, self-doubt, negative self-talk, etc. are taught through exposing our young kids to difficult scenarios in a controlled weight room setting.  Through this exposure athletes can master lessons that transcend the weightroom and carry them to success in the rest of their life.  

In short, the lesson is growth through perseverance, the teacher is adversity and failure, the classroom is the weight room.

Do you want to learn tools necessary to communicate set up, execution and cue corrections in lifts? Check out the Trainers Course in our Academy and invest improving your communication, cueing, and programming!


Are you enrolled in the Trainers Course? How has this improved your ability to coach and program for your clients?


PODCAST: PA Radio – Episode 370: Ryan Davis is Coaching with Intent
BLOG: Empowering Through Failure by Carl Case
BLOG: How to Empower Uncoachable Kids by Jim Davis

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David McKercher

Power Athlete Block One Coach David Mckercher has been the owner of Train608 in Waunakee, Wisconsin since 2017. Train608 provides athletes aged 9-20+ with on-site and virtual training, coaching, and programming. Paired with a former career in teh culinary arts, Train608 presents a unique approach to developing young people and athletes. That philosophy includes a combination of strength & conditioning, nutritional guidance, and presenting athletes with numerous daily opportunities to develop leadership, responsibility, and accountability. David has worked with teams and individual athletes from across the spectrum since 2010. He has been fortunate enough to work with the 2015 DII national champion Wisconsin Women's Rugby Football Club, individual athletes from the Team USA CXC, and numerous other professional, D1, D2, D3 athletes. Top among those achievements, however, is the ability day in and day out to provide young people with motivation, inspiration, and opportunities to take control of the inevitable failures and successes of their lives so they can be as strong and resilient as possible. Father, partner, never afraid to be inspired, David currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with his partner of 10 years Lisa and their two dogs Jake & Ragnar.


  1. Ryan Schaefer on December 15, 2020 at 9:21 pm

    Great article. It’s always refreshing to hear what MCK has to say. Failure is certainly an important part of life and working toward those trials and tribulations because you know growth awaits on the other side is paramount to our success.

    • DavidMck on March 22, 2021 at 10:48 pm

      Thanks for the feedback Ryan. Always grateful to be able to put out information that others find useful.

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