Chris Holder: Training Failure – When to Push Young Athletes and When to Wait

Training Failure. This topic is a dicey one, to say the least.

From a coaching perspective, you never want to see your athlete fail. Most of us would step in their shoes at the drop of a hat and would bend over backwards so our kids can taste success. So why on earth would we consider letting them fail in the weight room, when we know we could step in and immediately keep them from falling on their face?

I get the incredible honor to work with college-aged athletes. On paper, this is a dream situation. It’s assumed that these men and women would give their all in every situation to ensure the chance at winning. We all dream of the chance to take the field, take the court or enter the starting blocks for a major university. I’ll be the first one to say that even though my playing career ended almost 20 years ago, there’s still a piece of me who wishes he could get one last offensive series . . . I know I could give an elite level effort, even if it were for only a few snaps.

The idea that any one of these athletes would not sell out every chance he or she gets is dumbfounding for sure.

Unfortunately, that is the trend right now.

As a coach who is overseeing a program, do you ever encounter a situation where you let your athlete fail—so that they can learn? The answer is an unequivocal, “YES.”

Times have radically changed since I played in the 90s. With these changes, attitudes, ideas and expectations of what they feel they are responsible for has become a bigger headache than you can imagine.

Here is a list of reasons to let an athlete experience failure until they ask for help.

Amateur vs. Professional

The first and most obvious difference between amateur and professional is money. Money makes the world go round and for the professional athlete, that can be the most influential reason to bust their butt and give a massive effort, day after day. Professional sports are cut throat, let me tell you. These folks can get fined for next to anything and the fear of losing your job is a very real thing for all of them, at all times.

Imagine showing up to work, and your company fines you 30% of your pay for this two weeks because you wore some shoes that you weren’t supposed to . . . or 10% of your weekly take because you walked in late for a meeting. Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Well this is what professionals face, among countless of other ways to have their pay docked.

Professional sports are the single most competitive settings most of us could conceive. Young, hungry aggressive athletes are clawing for your job, and most franchises will tell you that they have no issue cutting a person if they could find someone better. Typically, they can get a rookie for pennies on the dollar compared to a person who’s been around for a while, so they will ship you on a moment’s notice if it seems like you are easing off of the gas and there is a youngster with nearly equal talent whose hunger is greater than yours.

One of my favorite “cut” stories I’ve ever heard was about ten years ago, when I was taking a brand new job. Walking in the door, it was close to NFL Draft time and a senior on the team I had inherited got a free agent contract a day after the draft. He did little in preparation during the post season, yet packed his bags and jumped on a plane, excited for his chance at the bigtime. His plane landed and a representative for the team was waiting on him upon arrival. He walked out of the tunnel, and the representative looked him up and down and then walked him to the counter. A return ticket was bought right there and he was cut from the team in the terminal. Now, I tell this story, not to make fun of this kid. I tell it because the heat is on for aspiring professional athletes the second they sign, and this is the most brutal story I’ve heard. Yet.

For amateurs, college kids in my situation, that “heat” is nearly nowhere to be found. Usually, playing time is the only point of leverage most schools have. Once you sign a scholarship, you have to really mess up to get cut or kicked off the team. The drive or impulse to work your fingers to the bone must be in your DNA. Unfortunately, attitudes towards doing whatever it takes are long gone.

Reason #1- Most athletes don’t think they can lose what they’ve got, so why work hard?


Instant gratification

One of the best things about being alive today is the readily available devices that bring any and everything that you could ever want to your fingertips within seconds. It’s a magical time. I can open an app, search for a song and download it in less than 30 seconds. It’s mine forever. But back in the day we had to jump in the car, drive to record store wait in line and spend our $13 on some full LP to get access to one song.

It was work, on a small level.

This is a blessing and a curse. Most of my athletes have grown up in a world where they haven’t had to work for much because their access to nearly anything they have wanted was as easy as a push of a button. So, the idea of working hard for something that takes time is simply not interesting to them. It seems unfair and their ability to lose interest because of the time component turns many of today’s young athletes into disinterested brats.

Reason #2- I can have what I want, when I want. So why should I invest a considerable amount of time on something that gives me small chunks of what I’m wanting at such a snail’s pace?

Let’s face it, winning just isn’t that Important

This one kills me, but it’s the cold, hard truth. The will to win is dying a slow death. By the time my own small children are playing college sports, I’m afraid that winning (at that level) will be a non-topic or certainly not a priority.

It’s coming folks.

No matter what anyone thinks, the idea of youth sports focusing on “fun” instead of letting our children experience what it is like to win and lose is killing sports. The impulse to protect our kids from experiencing a let-down is, in the moment, the right idea. The unfortunate aftermath of us conducting business like this is that it is bleeding into the higher levels. For the first time in my career, I can honestly say that athletes who truly don’t care about winning have made their way into my weight room. And the numbers grow year to year.

Reason #3- So, why would I work hard if, to be honest, I don’t really care if we win or lose?

Because it hurts

I know you are probably thinking that I am trying to be funny, but this is something that I hear more often than you might think. “Coach, I can’t do this because it hurts.” I’m not taking about pain due to injury—I’m talking about discomfort due to anything you can think of:

It burns!
It’s hard!
I don’t like it!

The innate blue collar worker . . . the tough as nails country kid . . . these folks are becoming harder to find. I hesitate to tag all of the athletes who make it through my door as inherently soft, but we are getting there.

Reason #4- Why should I have to work hard if I know what’s being asked is going to suck?

So why would you let me fail?

First off, I must admit, I’m as big a part of the problem as any one of the above listed “Reasons.” I was raised by a Vietnam Vet, I played for head coaches who were considered legends at their given levels and I only know one way to work.

Winning was and still is the only thing that matters. Unfortunately for my athletes, I refuse to change.

Allowing my athletes to taste failure in anything we are doing in our training comes from the notion that they must experience difficulty to learn to appreciate their work and the outcomes. The above four reasons are merely examples at how easy it is to find a reason not to work hard.

I’m going to be brutally honest with you right now. My staff and I can teach most anyone how to do a given exercise with precision. We know how sharp our approach is, how we could coach circles around most trainers and how refined our progressions have become. It’s not ego, it’s years of results. When we are on the floor teaching, our confidence in how we are instructing is expected to be received by athletes who are listening, assimilating and eventually owning the material.

We make it easy, logical and filled with common sense, so the uptake should be 100%. More often than not, it isn’t.

What we get, because of our “Reasons,” are disengagement, clock watching and excuse making. We encounter epic levels of disinterest because what we are asking is hard, uncomfortable or not exciting. Earlier in my career I had a track and field team who was making little-to- no progress. Their coach decided to come bitch to us that they weren’t getting faster, they were experiencing injuries they shouldn’t be and we weren’t winning at an acceptable clip. Little did he know we tracked daily attendance. What we presented him were statistics on how often his kids were actually showing up for their lifts. We contacted him several times to inform him we were having problems, but until it started affecting his bottom line, he seemed to not be interested. When we showed him that his sprinters where showing up to less than 30% of the time to their scheduled lifts, his story took a different turn. He would let them come and go as they pleased. And in the end, it was crow he had to eat.

So, at what point do you say, “F@$k this!”?

In reality, you never give up on an athlete. And perhaps most important, you never allow someone to get so lost that they either disappear or get injured. Injuries will never happen on my watch. What happens is you need to determine their level of engagement, their selflessness and how bad they want to learn. I would never let a kid who was giving me their all get lost in the woods. They “earn” the best from us because they are giving their best to us.

At some point, due to my over 500 student-athlete population, I have to pick and choose who gets the most from me. I will always default to bend over backward for a kid who is willing to sell out for their team, the university and me.

For those athletes who I have to chase, they get only a couple of chances. And once they prove to me that their level of care is not up to par to what their teammates are insisting, I’m insisting and what their coaches insist on, I have to devote my focus elsewhere. Again, I’m not letting anyone get hurt, but when they come to me complaining about they aren’t making the type of progress they were thinking they deserved, I now have talking points for them.

I’ll give you 15 chances, but you will have to ask for them. I can’t and won’t beg you to care.

There has to be something inside of you that drives you, that motivates you and pushes you to work. I want nothing more than to be witness to you reaching your fullest potential and be a small part of a championship run alongside you. Unfortunately, I can’t want it enough for the both of us.

What I need you to do is to care more. That’s it. You will get the absolute best from me every breath we share together, but you need to display that you would die for this, just like I would.


Chris Holder is the head Strength and Conditioning coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. His football background, a Master RKC certification and 20 years of coaching experience at the college level have given him an edge in developing his athletes. Holder is also a Doctor of Medical Qigong and has found training success in his unique blending of eastern medical and spiritual approaches with western strength science.


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