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HomeWELLBEINGUnderstanding how our children learn – a dynamic and messy process

Understanding how our children learn – a dynamic and messy process

Learning can be a really dynamic and sometimes messy process. For children to learn effectively they need to be challenged at the appropriate level and then learn through the process of trying different things and ultimately making plenty of mistakes.

Most coaches and teachers can set tasks that allow children to make no mistakes or score 100%, however, the level of challenge should be questioned if this is happening too frequently.

The problem we often face as parents is that watching our children struggle and fail can be a really tough process. Our natural tendency as parents is to try and step in the moments that we see our children struggle yet the bravest thing for us to do is to allow the process to unfold and then be there to support them positively afterwards through healthy conversations and maintaining a balanced perspective.

Stood watching training sessions where children are learning new skills and are being challenged by different problems can be a nightmare for parents as they watch their child make mistake after mistake after mistake.

Stood with other parents at this stage also does not help as sometimes we perhaps become hot under the collar and feel like we are being judged as a parent on our child’s performance.

I stood recently with a group of parents watching a session as described above and the unrest as the session went on was interesting to see. More and more frustration for parents, more gesticulation towards their children and a growing sense that the after session debrief was not going to be a positive or healthy one.

I did intervene at this stage and asked the questions to the parents I was stood with: How many of them have done this before?; How many times have you seen this particular session?; Is every child making lots of mistakes?

On reflection most acknowledged that there were a lot of mistakes from everybody but then immediately assumed that it was a really bad training session. Of course, it was not but it once again highlights the disconnect that sometimes occurs from pitch to parent.

From a young age, children are essentially brainwashed and conditioned to fear losing and failure. Parents, coaches, teammates, friends convince them that failure is some kind of awful thing, creating environments where children are unable to express themselves, try new things and be creative.

The reality is that the most successful, happy, emotionally balanced athletes don’t fear failure. It’s not something that scares them. They are merely playing the game, have it all in perspective and are having fun.
Cognitive psychologists believe that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, that the most effective learning looks inefficient, it looks like our children may be falling behind, when in fact they are merely learning.

It can be really difficult for parents to get their heads around this. In society today, there is a real demand for instant gratification and wanting to see our children succeed. Why wouldn’t we? Of course, we want our children to succeed, we make our decisions because we love them!

However, this can often cause conflict and does not always lend itself to creating amazing learning environments. Just think back to how many times your child fell over before they learnt to walk and how our patience never exceeded our expectation. Do you take this approach whilst watching your child develop in their sport?

One of the areas of learning and sport that may not be recognised as parents is that of the learning pit. An area in coaching that challenges players to help make them better performers. Without understanding the ‘learning pit’ parents may become disillusioned, frustrated and may have conversations with their children that may not be the most productive.
If we clearly understand how our children learn then we have a far greater chance of being able to support them effectively.



Often coaches and parents are not aligned on this and it once again highlights the need for pro-active and effective communication.

What is the coach role in this?
• Be prepared and plan for failure.
• Understand all of your players so you can best support them.
• Make the parents aware of the process.
• Have more success than ‘failure’.
• Ensure all the other coaches involved with the group are aware.

What is the parental role in this?
• Work on changing your child’s overall mindset towards failure – stop them fearing it.
• Don’t allow them to create a false narrative in their mind.
• Try your best to support your child in turning negatives into positives.
• Encourage your child to be compassionate towards themselves

Be aware that learning is individual, non-linear and can take time. Your child is on their own unique journey and making mistakes are a crucial part of the process.

So, the next time you are watching your child struggle, be aware of the ‘learning pit’, ask yourself some of the questions above during the training session or match and then arm yourself with some tips and strategies to pick up healthy conversations after the event.

Gordon MacLelland is the CEO and founder of Working with Parents in Sport, which supports parents and coaches in working together to provide children with the best possible sporting experiences. To find out more about their work please visit



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