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When It All Goes Wrong: How to Respond to Failure

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What's the right response in the first minute after a performance failure? For many clicker trainers, the immediate answer is to try to create a neutral response—one that doesn't reward or punish. But that goal, while admirable, isn't realistic and may lead the trainer to miss the bigger picture.

Canine sports and human sports

Trainers often ask, "What do I do with my dog right after a mistake? How do I act? What do I do to get back on track?” Human team-sport competition provides an excellent analogy to canine competition of any kind, and can help illustrate the answers to these questions. Why human sports? The dynamics are compellingly similar.

A sports team is a product that is asked to perform when it doesn't know if it’s ready. ClickerExpo and Karen Pryor Academy faculty member Steve White points out that a working or sport dog is exactly this—a "product" that is almost always in public before it’s “finished!” We hope the product (the team or the dog) is ready, but every week at “game time” one team finds out it’s not!

Looking at the sport of soccer—a sport I have coached at the youth level for 12 years—there are other similarities. Soccer is a particularly challenging sport for a coach because he/she exercises little control once the game begins. There are no timeouts during play, so there is no opportunity to communicate changes. Plus, the size of the field makes it virtually impossible to dictate strategy or tactics to players while the game is on. For these reasons, a soccer coach in France is called the "selector" and not the "coach." He trains the players, selects the players who will play, and then hopes they go out and perform what they’ve been trained to do best. Any dog handler will recognize the soccer coach’s challenges as his or her own!

Dog handlers train rigorously and compete regularly in complex environments. Course layouts change, and squirrels appear from nowhere. Courses are dry when you practice and muddy when you run them. Similarly, my youth soccer team works hard—we have training sessions twice a week in both the spring and the fall and we play games on Saturdays. We compete on surfaces that are very different, on fields whose sizes vary, and with additional variables like weather, referee skill, and more. Whether you compete in canine sports or coach sports, one of your chief challenges is a complex web of environmental variables.

Finally, in both arenas competition against other teams means the same thing: The competitive venue is where you see how well the skills you've been teaching and training are internalized.

The competitive venue is where you see how well the skills you've been teaching and training are internalized.

The Case of the Goalie Error

In the soccer environment, I’ve learned some lessons about how to handle the mistakes my players (in my case, always kids) make on the field. Are these lessons that can help the canine handler?

Consider the following scenario: In a tight match, my goalie makes a mistake that costs us a goal and, quite possibly, the game.

Now what?

The nature of the mistake (not coming off her line to cut off a ball) tells me clearly that she hasn't yet internalized what we have worked on at practice. Yes, I am frustrated—by the goal, by the failure, and by the prospect of more goals given up if the right behavior doesn’t take root!

What are my possible responses immediately following the goal?

  • Keep her in goal and say nothing
  • Keep her in goal and ask her an interrogatory question of some kind (open-ended: Why didn't you come off your line?) or (yes/no: Should you have come off your line?)
  • Keep her in goal and instruct her to do something different that could help in the future (Come off your line earlier next time!)
  • Keep her in goal and say something encouraging (Keep your head up!)
  • Take her out of goal, talk with her about what could be done differently, then put her back in goal
  • Take her out of goal, but put her back in the field
  • Take her out of goal, have her sit on the sideline, and say nothing
  • Take her out of goal and express some level of incredulity at her mistake

The fallacy of the neutral response

What should I do? It’s appealing to try to find a neutral response, one that neither encourages nor punishes. But none of the choices listed above are neutral responses. They all will have consequences—some more predictable (and aversive) than others. Hurt feelings, tears, loss of focus, loss of confidence, or a complete shutdown are all possible. But, it’s also possible to see the following consequences: a bounce back with more energy, a determination to do better, or anger channeled into focused energy.

You can recognize masterful clicker trainers—their first reactions under stress are all in the right direction.

So how should I, as a clicker trainer and a coach, respond? First of all, if I've really internalized my lessons, my response should not be a conscious choice but a reaction. You can recognize masterful clicker trainers—their first reactions under stress are all in the right direction. But many of us (me included) are not yet masters and are working to overcome some unproductive patterns, especially in stressful situations. In those circumstances, I use a series of questions/reminders that can help me make the right decision.

Four Questions

Here are the four questions I ask myself, as well as my answers as they apply to the case of the goalie error:

Is this a real moment of training?

  • No. This is a game situation. I am not in a training situation where I can improve player skills. I can't fix the skill right now.

What is the objective?

Since the objective is not "fix this problem skill right now," what is it?

  • If I want this player in goal again, my objective is to be sure that at our next practice the player will be receptive to learning and will continue with confidence.
  • Alternatively, if I have lost confidence in this player at this position, then I want her out of the net in this game. But, I also want her to feel prepared to learn again at our next training session. If I have to pull her out of goal, I want to try to redirect her energy into a task where she can feel successful and supported—perhaps in the game in a field position.
  • While it is true that every moment is a teaching moment, not all all teaching moments serve the same purpose. Some teaching moments only serve to set up larger teaching opportunities later. That's how I see this situation. My response should be focused on setting up the player to learn later, and not on fixing something now!

Some teaching moments only serve to set up larger teaching opportunities later.

Am I feeling neutral?

(Ha!) Be real about the stakes and emotions.

  • No matter how neutral I want to feel, I have to acknowledge that I'm frustrated. I probably can't ask anything of, or tell anything to, the player that won't be taken as critical because I do feel critical. My goalie is feeling frustrated herself. The reality of these feelings makes me even less eager to pull her out and talk with her about how to improve. Neither of us would be very good at it at the moment.

What don't I know about the issue?

  • A lot. I don't know what was going on in the moments before the error. Did this player make the error because she was thinking about her new puppy dog? Did she make an error in judgment but recognized the situation? Maybe she didn't recognize the situation, or maybe she did not know what to do in that situation. Maybe my player can explain the moments before the error, but it’s more likely that she can't.
  • At this point, not knowing exactly what caused the error or where the error began isn't important. I know that I have to go back to a more basic level where my goalie is comfortable and build the skill back up from there. Knowing that I don't know is important—I won't be inclined to dictate a wrongheaded solution right now!

Decision time

In this situation, I choose to keep the goalie in. I cheer the whole group (including her), but don’t say anything individually to the goalie. It’s true that my silence (lack of explicit support for her) might be taken as an expression of my disappointment, or even a reproach. I don't really know. On the other hand, if I shout out encouragement to the goalie only, she might take that public effort as insincere and insulting—even as an attempt by me to place the blame on her in a public way. Again, I can't be sure.

Either of those responses would probably be fine. Both provide the opportunity for me to keep the player in the game and set up my player for successful training sessions later. 

The “Big Picture”: what trainers miss

The “Big Picture” is what I feel dog trainers and many coaches sometimes miss. In asking, "What do I do right after a mistake? How do I act? What can I do to get back on track?” they are quick-fix oriented. In the moment of failure, the “fix it” orientation is often counterproductive. Instead, my answer to any of the “what to do” questions above is simple—go back and train some more. The error demonstrates that the skill is not sufficiently internalized.

In other words, how we respond in the first minutes after failure is important. Use those moments to prepare the player to internalize the right skill later; it’s not the time to attempt to dictate the right skill then and there.

My team plays and competes every Saturday whether we're ready or not. We play in situations where I expect some failure all the time. Some failures have small consequences (mishandling a ball, missing a shot); some have larger consequences (mistakes that lead to goals). When you are in the performance arena, there's very little that can be done to fix mistakes. At halftime, I can inspire players to put into use the skills they have but are not using, or to deploy the skills that they have in a better way, but that's about it. If a mistake is an anomaly, then it’s not likely to happen again so there is no need to get all upset about it. If it’s a skill that is not yet fluent, the only way to fix it is in training sessions!

Act instead to create and preserve the opportunity to fix errors in future training sessions.

Preserve the opportunity to learn

In youth soccer, as well as in dog training, the neutral response is not attainable. Keep in mind the teaching objective, remember that you don’t know much that’s important about the circumstances of the error, and remember that there is little that can be fixed during the competition. Act instead to create and preserve the opportunity to fix errors in future training sessions. Make changes in training that set everyone up with the best chance for success. After that, hope for the best when you get to the unpredictable field or competition ring. No one wins gold without some luck on their side! Good luck with your own responses!

About the author
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Aaron Clayton is President of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and TAGteach International, and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

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