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VULNERABILITY with athletes: are we helping or hurting?

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Coach Maria here -- I wanted to share a bit about our "Word of the Week" this past week at our 360U Softball & Baseball Facilities. Our word was "VULNERABLE" and we had so many great discussions with our athletes on this topic. We continue to learn so much from our athletes, and are so energized by seeing them learn from our experiences with some of these concepts.

Our younger athletes spent time learning about what it means to be 'vulnerable' and how it can help us learn new things that might seem scary or impossible. We encouraged them to try something new without being afraid of making a mistake or failing, and that messing up means they're doing awesome because they're trying something new (this puzzled many of them as it contradicted what they previously believed about 'failing').

In our instruction at 360, it is SO cool giving young athletes the permission (even encouragement) to fail and to make mistakes. When they give you their trust and become vulnerable, they let down their walls to grow, as an athlete and as a person, and they forget about who is watching in the process. And yes, we cheer when an athlete swings and misses when they're trying something totally new and uncomfortable...because then, they will try it again and eventually it will work. We literally see it all the time, especially during front toss. The nervous, uncertain looks of approval after each swing while trying something suddenly new turn into wide-eyed "oh my gosh, I didn't know I could do that!?" swings once it finally "clicks".

For our older athletes, the thought of becoming vulnerable gets more complicated. As our athletes get older and play more, there are so many more experiences, factors and influences that make it much more difficult for them to be vulnerable. In thinking about this, I came away with some key take-aways on how to encourage growth through vulnerability:


1. Understand the opportunity

As coaches and instructors (and even parents), we ask our athletes to go outside their comfort zone and to try new things -- maybe a new hitting stance, a different grip, playing a new position, joining a new program or playing for a different coach -- whatever it may be. In doing this, we are asking them to go outside of the boundaries they know and feel safe in, thus making them pretty vulnerable and impressionable during this time. When a kid does this, we have SUCH AN OPPORTUNITY to help them grow and realize how strong they can be. However, there's something SO important that we as adults need to be so aware of here. When we have an athlete in this vulnerable, trusting state -- we can do as much damage as good if we're not careful about how we respond as they're learning and adjusting to the new situation.

2. They SHOULD fail

We need to be cognizant of the fact that they will not, and should not, be perfect or react 100% confidently at whatever it is they're doing or trying. As adults, we spend less time in this place of 'vulnerability' in our lives and it takes patience and an alteration of our expectations to help them get comfortable in this 'uncomfort zone'. If they are giving 100% of their effort at this new adjustment, position or team, and are failing or experiencing challenges, THEY SHOULD BE! We unfortunately have seen this time and time again - an athlete's spirit is totally squashed after being criticized or negatively responded to when they don't immediately succeed or show progress in these situations. We have seen it suck the life right out of kids - and their love for the game often times goes with it.

3. Be relatable & use empathy

I personally have been there - more than once. From younger years on local travel teams getting one pinch hit in a tournament and an occasional inning in right field, to later in my career when I once had a coach say "I didn't have any business" playing at the DI level and that it was somehow luck that I was as successful as I was - completing diminishing my hard work, effort and all of the times I had to get uncomfortable to grow and get to the point that I did. If you're not 100% self-assured about your abilities, which most young athletes aren't, this can create so much uncertainty and doubt in a player's mind. We've all been there - you open up to try something new and are criticized, embarrassed or made to feel 'lesser' by someone who should be supporting you or encouraging you in a new endeavor. That's not fun as an adult, and how much more impressionable is a young person when they receive that type of negative feedback.


The takeaway I left my older athletes with last week was this... "you're going to have times in your career when you open up, leave your comfort zone and try something new -- and you're going to be totally supported and encouraged for it, regardless of the outcome. Those are your 'yes' people who will help you achieve your goals on AND off the field. BUT there will also be other times and other people who will directly or indirectly criticize or embarrass you for it. Ignore those comments and people (respectfully) and be an advocate for yourself."

Softball and baseball are supposed to be FUN. There are SO many life lessons we can teach these kids to take with them when their time playing ends (because it will end eventually) and those are the things that will serve them well for the rest of their lives!

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