Play and Exposure to Failure


Play and Exposure to Failure

Jenn Pilotti


A curious thing has happened across gyms and fitness centers across the US- people are worried about doing things right. “What is the right way to pick something up from the ground so I don’t hurt my back?” I get asked. “What is the right way to stand/sit/move around?” people inquire, worried that by moving wrong they will destroy their physical structure and end up a heap of skin and bones on the ground, destined to a life of pain and devoid of physical strength.


This isn’t to say helping people move efficiently doesn’t matter. It does. It makes their lives easier and enables people to increase their general body awareness. Occasionally, changing people’s movement habits decreases the sensation of pain and discomfort as well, so yes, mechanical efficiency is still part of the movement professional’s job. However, when movements are constantly micro-managed and bodies are instructed to move in a specific way for every single movement, the sense of playfulness is lost. Movement ceases to be a vehicle for exploration and takes on a more polarizing role. If there is a right and wrong way to move, then if you move the wrong way, you are at risk for breaking.


What has been largely lost in our physical culture is the idea that movement can be fun. Somewhere in the thousands of sets and reps that are performed in gyms and studios across the US, throwing in a hint of playfulness so people can actually use their acquired strength in a way that allows them to move spontaneously and freely should be encouraged. Teaching people to embrace all of the ways their bodies can move in addition to helping them become efficiently stronger needs to become the rule rather than the exception.


Fun, of course, doesn’t necessarily equate to easy. In the book, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree,” author Eric Barker writes, “Games are often harder than real life, but they are fun when they’re hard and boring when they’re easy…we fail at games 80 percent of the time” (1).


Have you ever put someone that hasn’t exercised in decades through the Functional Movement Screen? If you teach it simply as an assessment tool, I guarantee your heart will hurt a little bit as you watch the individual in front of you get frustrated, embarrassed, and possibly a bit angry as he struggles with the ipsilateral bird/dog and wobbles during the split stance lunge. Not only is he, in his eyes, failing at the tasks, he is also being observed and judged. However, if you teach it as an obstacle course, with stations, it changes the dynamic the person has with the movements. He no longer views it as “something I can’t do;” rather, he views it as a challenge to be overcome. (For the record, I chose the FMS just because it’s a familiar and challenging assessment tool, not because I have strong feelings about it one way or the other. Any standard assessment, where you instruct the person to try difficult things and make notes on a clipboard as the person struggles will cause the same sense of frustration).


The point is, learning any new skill is hard, and most people who finally get around to starting an exercise program already feel like they have failed because they haven’t been exercising as consistently as they should be/want to be. To be challenged to move outside of one’s comfort zone is arguably not something most people want to do in a traditional fitness setting- they don’t want to be unsuccessful at the very thing they finally mustered the courage to do. So, instead of gravitating towards activities that will give them more dynamic fitness, they stick to what’s safe. They do exercises they know they can do without fear of injuring themselves or not completing successfully and they hire coaches to make sure their form is perfect.


Perhaps the largest bummer about this situation is coaches/trainers/fitness instructors have, in an effort to provide the service their clients and students want, removed the playfulness from exercise. It becomes a means to end, a way to increase physical health and well-being, but not a way to explore the environment. The curiosity about movement disappears, a tragedy in an already over-stimulated culture.


What if fitness professionals began to look at movement as a game? What if, after a specific warm-up that focused on proprioception, the occasional game is thrown in to teach a skill? If we alternated between focused attention and an external goal that was playful, would our clients get stronger and more embodied? Barker writes,” “Our brains love novelty, and good games make sure we’re always stimulated by something just a little different, honing our attention.”


If we consistently teach and cue a skill exactly the same way, our clients begin to tune us out. They know the words, they know what they are supposed to do, and the activity becomes less interesting. If, however, we take a traditional exercise and add a little twist, altering how the client perceives it, it becomes more interesting.


One of my favorite ways to do multi-planar lunges can be seen below. I fail occasionally, and that’s okay. I am also successful often, and I find it mentally engaging, more of a game than a specific set/rep scheme to work my legs.


This doesn’t mean I don’t spend time doing focused work, thinking about how my limbs are moving in space. It just means that I also take the time to move in an unplanned, task oriented way.


Learning research suggests learning happens when we challenge ourselves in a variety of contexts (2). The failure that likely ensues the first time we try something new causes our brains to rework our approach to the task the next time. Eventually, through repeated exposure in different contexts, the concept we are trying to understand sticks. The challenge is the thing that keeps it interesting; approaching the concept in a variety of ways opens up a window for connecting with the information.


Game play is exactly this, repeated exposure to problem, explored slightly differently each time. When looked at under the scope of movement, game play can help us break through plateaus, achieve new skills, and get a lot more enjoyment out of our workouts.


A few weeks ago, the coach that writes my program suggested a slightly miserable isometric hold following a challenging strength move by simply writing, “Can you perform B directly after A?”


“Of course I can do that,” I thought to myself, without a care about how it would actually feel. The way it was phrased posed a challenge; challenges are interesting and create a more play like environment.


I do this with my clients frequently. I pose the question, “can you?” and, like me, they say yes without hesitating. It reframes their mindset surrounding the activity and reframing, research shows up, is a powerful thing.


Strength is important, mobility is important, but I strongly believe exercise and fitness doesn’t have to be miserable to be effective. We know that in order to get stronger people need time under tension, but don’t undervalue the power of a self-organizing, playful physical experience.



  1. Barker, E., (2017). Barking up the Wrong Tree.
  2. Deans for Impact. The Science of Learning.

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