Failure is the Breakfast of Champions


Resident Psychologist, James Newman, takes us behind the scenes of elite sport to give an insightful approach to how we should embrace our failures…


As a Sport Psychologist, I work with a range of top performers. People we might think of as life’s success stories.


Whilst it is true they have forged great successes, the picture behind-the-scenes is not what you might expect. Because whilst you see their successes, you don’t see the stark truth – these champions fail far more than the rest of us.

Ben White (c) from Upsplash

From misplacing a pass to losing an important match, they fail daily – and this is exactly why they succeed.


FEAR OF FAILURE

Whether it’s going for a job interview, heading on a first date or giving a presentation – we get scared. Fear of failure (FoF) is perfectly normal and it can feel pretty demanding.


However, there are some facts which FoF masters realise:

  1. FoF cannot harm performance on its own

  2. FoF only hinders us if we try to avoid, reassure or fight it

How many times have you felt scared and changed what you did to feel safer? Maybe you rushed the presentation to get it over with? Cancelled the date because you were nervous?

Lacie Slezak (c) on Unsplash

And how does that make us feel? Not good. Usually, the tactics we use to avoid, fight or reassure FoF end up with us not getting the outcome we hoped for. There is a good reason for this. Success is ALWAYS twinned with failure. If you ‘succeed’ at something, it is by its nature a ‘success’ because there was a chance you could fail.


GOOD V BAD FAILURE

This takes us on to a key distinction between good and bad failures.


Bad failures are ones where you get FoF and respond by trying to escape or by giving up on the challenge. In these cases, you really only learn how to be a slave to your amygdala! What’s more, you miss the opportunity to experience a good failure.


Good failure might sound like fluffy, new-age drivel. However, the benefits of good failure are well researched. A good failure will:

  • Build rather than diminish our motivation

  • Teach us how to do things better

  • Act like an arrow to point us in the right direction

Perhaps the best way to imagine this is to think about doing one of those children’s paper maze puzzles. When you get to a dead end, it is a failure, but it is a failure that helps guide you (by process of elimination) to the correct route.

Good failures guide us to success (c) Jennifer Bedoya

One of my favourite sport psych studies looked at coaching children in the triple jump. They had two groups. One group learned the ‘correct’ technique for jumping. The other group first learned an ‘incorrect’ way and were then taught the ‘correct’ way. Both groups were measured before training and spent the same amount of time practising. Which group do you think improved on their pre-training jump distances the most?


You might have guessed – it was the group who learned the wrong way for half the time! Why would this be? Well, by learning how ‘not’ to do something, it cut off a path for what would not work. By knowing what wouldn’t work, they had more information than the group who only knew one way.


Another classic example is the toddler learning to walk. When they are learning they fail constantly. They try to get up and fall, they take a step and tumble, though they try to hide it, it’s clear, they are absolutely nowhere near…


Photo (c) Kelly Sikkema

We don’t call this failing, but it absolutely is. However, those failures all serve a purpose. They build muscle strength, teach the child how to coordinate their limbs and how to distribute their weight to balance. The success happens when they walk unaided, but it only happens because of the failures preceding it.


So, good failures are those we learn from and those which narrow down our focus so that in future performance we find the ‘right’ ways of doing things more easily.


HOW DO TOP ATHLETE APPLY THESE LESSONS?

Here are my top lessons for how to both cope with and develop from failure as practiced by many of my athletes.


#1 Before attempting something, see failure and success as probability

You should not expect that your first date/job promotion interview will go off well first time. You shouldn’t even expect it to go well tenth time. Understand that ‘X’ amount of failures might be needed for you to learn and earn the luck to succeed. Sometimes your failures will teach you, sometimes failures will be other’s ineptitudes – but see each failure as the price of doing business in increasing your possibility to succeed.


If you only buy one raffle ticket, you have less chance than if you buy 10. Truth is, if nine fail and one comes in – you’ll still be holding a bottle of champagne (or cheap shampoo).


#2 Understand success is always twinned with failure

You cannot succeed in something without there being a risk of failure. You must accept that to earn good things in life, there is a risk it won’t go well. Top athletes who reach the highest heights make a key decision. They submit to the risk of failing spectacularly, knowing they are strong enough to survive failure. The reason they risk it is for the chance of more glorious a success.


#3 Respond to FoF by staying course

Your FoF will scream at you to avoid or give up on challenges. Top athletes learn not to follow FoF’s advice. They take that fear along with them and spin it into energy to fight for what they want.


#4 Don’ts for failing

After you fail, there are some key things that resilient performers try to avoid.

- Ruminate for long periods on where it all went wrong

- Indulge in self-pity

- Engage in harsh self-criticism


It is normal to feel disappointed, upset or angry. These are perfectly human emotions that we can allow – just don’t dwell on them.


If I had to employ one most important characteristic of successful athletes it would be this…


#5 After failure – quickly move on to your next chance to fail

My best performers are the ones who can have a tough failure, but quickly recover and put themselves in a situation where they are prepared to fail again – as they know good failure lies in the same direction as success.


How do they move on so quickly? They accept their failure, remind themselves of the big picture (remember failure is the price of doing good business) and identify what they can learn from their last failure to take into their next attempt.

The more you're willing to fail, the greater chance of success - Photo (c) Jeffrey F. Lin

Top performers are not successes because they never fail. Nor are they successes despite their failures. They are successes because of their failures. Failure teaches them and builds their resilience so that it becomes almost inevitable they will succeed.


Their failures are the fuel of their fortune.

James Newman is a Sport & Exercise Psychologist and runs The Mind Hawk, a performance consultancy.

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