The Mindset of Failing

Failing at tennis - ading to a growth mindset

Learning about sport when I was young mainly involved cricket and football, I never really experienced tennis. My son has been playing since he was about 4 and this season has been enjoying playing as part of a local team in a Junior Competition every Saturday. I think he is experiencing what failing feels like through his time playing tennis.

I have been getting to know what it is like being a tennis Dad this season and watching a lot of tennis, naturally. One thing you notice with this sport compared to football is the number of small victories and failures there are. It is much more about the cumulative effort, gradually building up points, overcoming the failures you experience.

If you play tennis you will know that failure and winning/losing points is an integral part of this sport. This is different to the experience of football I had growing up, where the end result was the only thing that mattered, there were not many measures of progress. Sure you could tell which team was dominating play, but it was not as clear as you win a point or you lose a point.

I have always found it fascinating that in tennis you could be one point from defeat and yet still come back to win a match. My son starting his match today losing 3 early games and before long he was losing 4-2, but he suddenly woke up and won the remaining 4 on the bounce to win 6-4.

Do multiple small setbacks during tennis create a more resilient approach? I wonder if the mindset of a tennis player sees failing and losing differently to a football player?


  1. Thanks for a whole host of thought-provoking blog posts, I have been re-motivated to spend time properly reading blogs, rather than skimming Twitter for useful titbits. Regarding failure, we have been doing a lot of work with schools on the new computing curriculum, and one thing I try to emphasise is the opportunity it provides for reframing failure as a postive step along the way to making something work. In particular in reference to programming – we rarely write a program 100% correctly first time around – debugging is integral to the process. And when a program is complete, it may achieve the same goal as a peer’s program, but look completely different – there isn’t just one ‘right’ way of doing things.

  2. This made me think about how we traditionally provide feedback on student learning which is not unlike the analogy to football. I’m thinking American football in this case and getting an A on assignment is much like scoring a touchdown. It’s not uncommon to see teachers use sports analogies and comment “Homerun” or “Touchdown” on good work. I like the idea of rewarding effort along the way and making it okay to make mistakes along the way and be rewarded for the learning. It’s a different mindset for parents, teachers and students.

  3. Many thanks Chris for your thoughtful contribution to this discussion – a timely theme for us all in education as we continue to try and shift thinking. I appreciate the Woodens quote you share. One of the analogous topics I had been pondering as I was writing this piece is the idea of “Done” in school and learning. The challenges and positives such long term investment brings are interesting to think through.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to comment Pam,I am pleased you found something that resonated with you in my post. We need a re-branding effort around failure don’t we? It comes with all sorts of baggage. Most of which are cultural or domestic influences. How we help parents better appreciate this is vital.

  5. This is a nice analogy and thought provoking. Thanks for the blog post and a great idea to ponder with colleagues and consider as we design lessons that seek to motivate students and overcome the frustration associated with failure.

  6. I think that this is a really interesting question to ask and ponder. There is definitely something in that notion that you really never can be sure that the game is over in tennis until the final point is won, compared to time-limited sports, and the effect that this might have on how you apply yourself to other, ongoing, challenges in life.

    I think my favourite ‘motivational quote’ which this starts to get close to is John Woodens “Things turn out best for those people who make the best of how things turn out”. The really powerful thing to me in this saying is the notion that, on the grand scale of things, in every moment, every week, every year, we still have to find a way of making the most of every moment, week and year that has gone before. It is only artificial, temporary situations in life where there is a final end point of ‘Ok, that’s it, you’ve lost’, and even the Oscar winners have to wake up the next morning and say, ‘Ok, how do I now respond to this moment and make the most of the hand I’ve been dealt?’

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