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The Power of Failure

  |   Coaching, Endurance, Psychology, Racing

Unbelievably, we seem to be at the end of another year already, how did that happen?! As always at this time of year, I’ve been spending a lot of time with athletes recently who have finished their season, had a break and are now back settling in to that all important winter training ahead of next seasons challenges. Before we dive into another block of training though, we always encourage our athletes to take a look back over their season, pick out the highs and lows, and use these to plot a path through next season, their target races, and beyond that into following seasons if appropriate.

What has been clear through this process is that for most people it’s easy to pick out the highlights and lowlights, but it can be very hard for people to appreciate how valuable their perceived failures can actually be to developing their full potential. There is a potential golden ticket buried beneath the rather less appetising exterior of “failure”, if only we know where, and how, to look for it!

It’s very common to see age-group athletes supposedly fail at something in particular which often leads them to change the type, style or distance of racing they do, rather than using new found knowledge to their advantage. The fear of repeating that initial failure is one of the biggest roadblocks to success as it essentially condemns the athlete to another season of unrealised potential. The athlete who learns from it and isn’t afraid of failure however will be the one who ultimately improves, achieves and succeeds in meeting their goals.

As with so many things in life, success and failure is really down to your perspective on things and your approach to life. It has been well documented in a number of professional studies that success in the face of failure comes down to a persons focus. Those focused on achieving their goals are much more likely to succeed in a task than those trying not to fail, so whilst in many cases it can be tempting to try not to fail (especially if you are new/less experienced in a sport), those optimistic athletes out there who are focused on the end goal will more than likely succeed in the end. Similarly, those who take the attitude that if they do not achieve something then it is just a complete failure are unlikely to want to try again. Conversely, someone who sees it as a learning experience and, even if it’s their hundredth attempt, they take away a coaching point to try next time, will likely succeed as the motivation to continue remains. As Winston Churchill once said…

“success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”

It’s been written and said so many times that attitude is what separates success from the failures, and it could be argued that nowhere is this more true than in sport. No-one picks up the technical skills of a sport first time, so what is it that drives those who make it to the top to keep trying? What separates the people who let their failures derail them from those that use their failures to their advantage? Quite simply, it’s perspective and approach.

Perspective is possibly the most important factor when it comes to handling failure. First off, we must remember that there’s failure and there’s Failure. In many cases, most of us won’t be competing at the level where not achieving a specific goal or outcome has particularly onerous consequences, our perspective and resulting mindset should match that therefore. But lets say it’s your A-race for the season and it went spectacularly wrong. People who are skilled at rebounding after a failure are most likely to attribute that failure to something that they did, i.e a poor decision during the race, not sticking to the race plan etc, so it’s something that’s fixable and we can move forward from it. Those less well versed in handling disappointments however will tend to blame their failure on what they are, i.e being lazy or stupid which means they have little control over the situation, so they’re less likely to try again. It’s not necessarily easy to know which you are, but if you’re risk averse and don’t like to try things again, look back and see if you recognise anything from the above in yourself.

Your approach must also go hand in hand with your perspective. Get back on the horse and maintain a sense of optimism, it’s the only thing that will allow you to be persistent and consistent with your practice and training, leading you onto bigger and better things. Take away a learning point from the failure and use it to correct the short-term problem or create a plan for prevention in the future.

Anyone can change how they perceive a failure, so take a look back at your season and see if you can take away a learning point from a perceived failure, adjust your perspective if you need to, and set yourself up for success next season.