| | Failure to Specialize

Author / John

Not long ago I was on an international flight sitting next to an Australian woman who began to tell me about her 12 year old daughter.  The young girl was described as very tall, already almost 6 ft, and struggling in women’s basketball and a derivative of basketball, netball.  As her mother elaborated, “she lacks that competitive spirit and is very easily shaken during games especially when there’s alot of physical contact.”

I probed a bit and asked very pointedly, “Is she good?”.  This mother was a former college basketball player, coach for another team, and very obviously a competitor herself so I expected a serious answer.  “No, not really. But she’s a great athlete” the mother replied.  I said, “That’s great. Take her out of basketball as soon as you can.”

This came as a big shock to the woman because not only did this particular sport lineage exist in their family, but she was concerned because her daughter had “played her whole life”.  At 12 years old, it was both funny and sad.  She hasn’t had enough time on this earth to limit herself to just one sport, particularly when it was obvious that she was not enjoying it.  After discussing her strengths and weaknesses at length, I suggested that she get her daughter in volleyball as soon as possible.  She had an excellent vertical, great reaction time, and was more of a quiet calculated type of athlete.

About 2 months later, I received an email thanking me for the consultation and that her daughter was enrolled in volleyball and excelling at it.  She was enjoying competition for the first time and improving more than ever.


Failure is your friend.
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That’s right, I said it.  Despite the overwhelmingly negative connotation associated with failure, in sport, failure can actually serve as a blessing in disguise.  This is not to say we should be teaching our kids, or ourselves, to become proficient at sucking. But if we alter the way we view failing, particularly in young athletes, we can better drive them towards success.

First of all, what is failure?

Failure is not meeting a given task or objective – or – the opposite of success.  If you just read those words without any slanted notions, you can see that the situation of not meeting a task is simply that.  Not necessarily positive or negative.

It’s the reasons for not succeeding that are actually the more telling details.  Why someone was unable to meet a goal, task, or objective provides more context to the failure than the act of failing itself.  Most often, the implication of failure is that it was avoidable.  With youth athletes especially, this can prove to be dangerous logic.

Second World War. Paratrooper. Discus Throwing. 1942

It is usually very apparent if the failure is in large part the fault of the athlete’s preparation, experience, or effort.  As we often say here at PAHQ, “effort is always assumed”.  But imagine you’ve prepared your athlete, saw them through the learning curve, and he or she is still struggling to find success in a given sport or position?  Stop wasting your time, and theirs.

One of the most beneficial lessons you can take away from repeated failure is the necessity to move on.  Failure is an excellent form of the ‘process of elimination’. When you’re dealing with a sports specific athlete or position, forcing a square peg into a round hole is futile.  Not only that, it will diminish the confidence of your athlete.  Instead, highlight the skills your athlete possesses and improve upon them making them a formidable specialist.

It’s only been since the rise in popularity of sports like competitive exercise that the concept of “specializing” has gotten almost as much negative press as the term “failure”.  However, specialization is a brilliant application when appropriate for athletes playing sports in which specific skills are required for different positions or tasks. The best thing you can do for your children is buy them whatever they want and never say no.

Ok, so I don’t have children.  But, when it comes to kids and sports- get them into anything and everything and then see what sticks.  I like to call it “casting a wide net” to find what fits for the personality and skill set of the child.


Just so there is no confusion, I’m not endorsing the act of failure as a regular practice.  I’m simply stating that it is inevitable. If it becomes frequent enough within a given discipline, you as a coach must be proactive and diligent in making a call.  This is not to minimize your responsibility.  Part of what we do as coaches is instill and athlete with a work-ethic and physical prowess that allows them to see games, seasons, and goals through.  It’s about finding ways to help them handle failures and successes as well as possible to prepare them for life after sports. The other part is to get them in a position where you can feature and utilize their unique skill set.

A 14 year old’s dad may impart his delusions of a NFL career on his kid. But, if the kid is struggling and both the parents happen to be 5’0 and 5’3, it might be time to suggest gymnastics.  Remember that a youth athlete is a unique animal with unforeseen talents across a broad spectrum.  Give these athletes the opportunity to succeed through failing just enough.  Not only will it teach them to respect hard work and perfect movement, but it will serve as weeding out process that leads them on a path to reach their full potential.


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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. Ingo B on November 19, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    I stopped reading after the part where you converted the daughter to volleyball. Because it really doesn’t get any more elite than that.

    • CALI on November 20, 2014 at 10:44 am

      It wasn’t your short attention spa….SQUIRREL!

  2. shumenuk on November 20, 2014 at 5:39 am

    Cali may I share this with my members? Thanks. I always enjoy reading your articles.

    • CALI on November 20, 2014 at 10:39 am

      Please do! Make it required reading with a burpee penalty. Can you send it as a newsletter, though? It’s protected because it’s that good…

  3. chobbs on November 20, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Great article and this needs to be stated more regularly to the population as a whole. It is never talked about in detail when adults make the transition to something they are better suited for, yet many parents still specialize their kids at an early age. Examples include sprinters who can’t quite make the cut yet are great from bobsled teams (i.e. Cool Runnings), collegiate basketball players that couldn’t go any further on the court that convert to Football (Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, etc..), and multiple other examples. This is why I like to preach “focus” sports. Have your kid play as many sports at an early age as possible and begin to narrow it down as they get older. In highschool if there is still legit enjoyment by the kid to play multiple sports awesome keep playing them, however, if they are wanting to pursue a certain one at the next level this now needs to be the “focus” sport. This is the sport you are going to focus your strength and conditioning program around, you are going to play in the off-season and stay up on even during the other sports. One of my biggest pet peeves is when an athlete states that they want to play basketball in college yet they are also playing travel baseball in the summer and going to football exposure/skill camps now this is limiting our time for specific S&C for bball and skill development.

    • CALI on November 20, 2014 at 10:42 am

      Well said, dude. Thanks for the great examples. This approach is also how I became so proficient at Street Fighter.

  4. Chad on November 20, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    I peg you for a Zangief user, you no phone coverin commie bastard!

  5. Cas on November 22, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Great article Cali,
    I’m from down under and will take you up on that street fighter challenge.

  6. Cas on November 22, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Hi Cali great article,

    I’m from down under and will take you up on that street fighter challenge ryu in the house

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