Afraid to Fail

Posted November 24, 2014

Kids don’t take risks anymore.

It seems like a counter-intuitive thought given the narrative we keep hearing about the plethora of opportunities for creative people with drive or inquisitive types with the ambition to learn new skills. Yet, it’s a truth that I’ve begun to see in my classroom and in the approach to life that many of my middle and high school students have.

And it’s a truth that became even clearer to me as basketball season began this year.

Our high school doesn’t have a long history of basketball success, which isn’t shocking when you consider it’s a NYC private school with a near entirely European population. However, we’ve managed to become a solid program over the past couple of seasons and could have our best team this year. We also happen to have a very talented freshman who we asked to join our varsity squad this year.

Apparently this was appalling to some people. While the kid jumped at the opportunity to join the Varsity team, many of his teammates said that they never would have even considered the possibility if they were in his shoes. When I asked why, most echoed each other: “I’d rather be the star and win a championship.”

Instead of playing at the highest level available to them, and surrounding themselves with players who would push them and make them better, they all would have rather just been better than the other players without trying and coasted to a championship.

It’s a mindset that’s utterly foreign to me. When I was in high school my friends and I wanted to play on the best team, regardless of how much playing time we got. Being on the best team meant that we were better than other kids our age. It meant our hard work had paid off.

Kids nowadays want to play on teams so they can have fun with their friends. We wanted to be better than our friends.

At first I thought that it was a mindset that could largely be attributed to my specific school and a cultural mentality that didn’t lend itself to the aggressive pursuit of sports. But after talking to other friends of mine who are still involved in teaching or coaching, they recognized the same thing. Kids now seem more prone to taking the easy, more fun, option.

Partially this makes sense. They’ve grown up in a culture that is entirely focused on tearing other people down. It’s not just politics; many of them pay little or no attention to that. It’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.. Everything they do or post is analyzed and commented on by their friends or friends of friends. One screw up can ruin them forever (or at least for what feels like forever). Why take a chance in a climate like that?

But then I realized that the athletic implications could easily be tied to the professional sports they’ve grown up watching.  They don’t experience the Bulls-Knicks rivalries like my friends and I did or the Lakers-Celtics rivalries like my dad watched. Instead, they see guys switching teams for the highest salary and the best players in the league actively trying to play together to make it as easy as possible to win a championship.

Was LeBron going to Miami with Wade and Bosh a risk? Wasn’t he simply trying to give himself the easiest possible chance to win a title? Limiting his risk as much as possible?

On one hand, you can’t blame him. Winning is an incredible feeling. On the other hand, you can obviously see where young kids could take away the wrong message from this.

LeBron worked his ass off for years to be the best basketball player in the world, and he struggled through multiple years of coming close, but ultimately failing, to win a championship. The only “easy way” he chose was to team up with other superstars; he didn’t stop working hard.

However, his “easy way out” was the most highly publicized part of that “decision.” It’s still one of the main things people talk about when discussing his career.

So, if LeBron can choose to avoid a rigorous path and make a decision that clearly shows winning is the most important thing, then what’s to stop younger basketball players from thinking the same way?

There are many other factors that go into this. Over-involved parents who protect their kids from any criticism. Coaches being restricted from being too hard on their players. The general ease that we’ve come to expect in society, etc. But the common denominator is that, instead of seeing mistakes as a challenge, kids look at failure as a death sentence; it’s a setback they can never come back from.

I’m not entirely sure there’s a solution to this mindset. It’s entirely possible we’ve turned a corner in regards to competition that we’ll never return from (R.I.P. Dodgeball). All I know is that it’s a shame to see young people shy away from a challenge that could benefit them because they’re afraid of what might happen if they fail.

It’s always been hard to fail, but Teddy Roosevelt was right when he said it’s worse to never have tried to succeed.