How to Fail Your Way to Athletic Success!!

“Failure is success in progress.” – Albert Einstein

Sports (and life) are riddled with adversity, setbacks, failure, and mistakes.  From the time we begin to try to stand up and walk as babies, we begin to make mistakes and experience failure.  At this point in our lives, there is no negative attachment or meaning to fail.

Between the ages of 0-7 are the most critical stages of cognitive development. The Sensorimotor and Pre-operational stages of brain development make up 90% of a child’s full growth. By the age of 7, most of our beliefs and subconscious programming (our habit mind) are developed, and unless you have worked on changing those beliefs, they still run the way we operate today.

For many, this is where the attachment to mistakes and failure are linked with a negative connotation. Our beliefs are shaped by our experience, our culture, our education, our upbringing, our social groups, our relationships, and so on and so forth.  To add to this, as humans we are conditioned with a negative bias anyway – up to 80% of our thoughts have a negative slight and 95% of those thoughts are a thought that we’ve had before (being creatures of habit).  So, at the very default of our existence, we are consumed with a negative perspective more than a positive one.

The one thing I love about sports is that it is life sped up. Many impactful life lessons are experienced, learned, and work through in the arena.  Sport shapes the way we see the world and our reality.

Most athletes I come across see mistakes and failure as a ‘bad thing’. As something to avoid or defining them as “not good enough”.  This comes from a societal consensus and experience that mistakes and failure define who you really are.  In turn, it creates emotions of shame, embarrassment, frustration, anger, guilt, etc. This causes many athletes to avoid the risks and perform safe, hesitant, or more tentative in their approach moving forward.  Unfortunately, this approach creates inconsistent underachieving athletes.

“Failure is not the opposite of success. It’s a part of success.” – William Ritter

Failure in the dictionary is given the meaning – “a lack of success.” The word mistake in the dictionary is aligned with the meaning – “an action that produces a result you do not want.” The fact of the matter is that mistakes and failure are a critical part of experiencing success. It is those same mistakes and episodes of failure that allow us to gain clarity around the lessons that ultimately fast-track development.

Recently I was listening to the Head Coach of Duke University Women’s Basketball Kara Lawson talk about the commonality of mistakes in regards to the attachment and impact it has on athletes.  “If you really watch the game of basketball, mistakes are made on every single possession. It is the reason why your team doesn’t score and the reason why the other team scores on you.” In a game averaging around 100 possessions, the mistake you make as an athlete is very small in the grand scheme of things.  This doesn’t just apply to the hardwood either, mistakes are an inevitable part of every sport and life.

Understanding that mistakes, failure, and setbacks are a part of the journey to success allows athletes to release the unrealistic expectation of perfection and perform to their full potential with greater consistency.

So let’s re-frame frame the thought process around failure by first looking at the benefits you acquire by making mistakes:

  • You Learn More From Failure Than From Success:

We all want to experience success more than failure but the truth is that you will experience more failure than success.  Failure gives you immediate feedback. Failing at something teaches you the necessary lessons to succeed. It teaches you what not to do or where you can improve to become better. It gives you clarity for the road ahead.  Not only do you learn from mistakes and failure to fast-track your skill development but you learn a lot about yourself along the way.

  • You Build Character & Resilience:

Mistakes help you grow. They have the ability to humble you and strengthen your desire to succeed. Getting up and trying again builds a level of character, resilience, and mental toughness that success can’t deliver. Failure builds confidence in your ability to endure. It builds a level of self-confidence because you now have evidence of improvement or success after not succeeding.  Failure reminds you that the journey is in the ability to endure and you are not defined by one singular outcome. It takes the pressure off the need to be perfect. The deepest confidence comes not from a single moment in time but rather in the thousands and thousands of hours of work that go into experiencing that moment.

  • It Narrows Your Attention & Focus to What Really Matters:

When you make an error, mistake, or experience failure or setbacks, you acquire immediate data about what you need to do to do differently the next time. This acquires immediate feedback and you receive answers to all kinds of questions you would never have asked yourself otherwise.  Failing creates feedback, clarity, and confidence to try again but instead of starting from scratch, you are now starting from experience. Beyond what you are immediately consciously aware of, your senses also upload all kinds of additional peripheral data into your subconscious mind of experiences to help you succeed in the future.

  • Mistakes Help You Lead Others:

Mistakes shape your journey and therefore shape your life story.  It is why the evolution of athletes keeps getting bigger, stronger, and more skilled than in previous generations. You ultimately learn the lessons to teach others how to be better. This in turn fast-tracks the next generation of development, opportunities, and ultimately success.  Every Coach, Mentor, and athlete has a story that will impact another’s life.  In fact, it is my own challenges and downfalls from the mental side of basketball that has driven me into Positive Psychology in Sports. The fulfillment I get from impacting or helping in the development of up-and-coming athletes also motivates me to be the best that I can be in my field.

  • Mistakes Release the Expectation of Perfection:

Mistakes and failures allow you to connect with others on a human level. Rarely do you get to see or become aware of the adversity that the greatest athletes of today have experienced through their journey to stardom.  You almost only ever see the finished product of athletes earning big dollars, competing in packed-out arenas with highlight reels to boot. This adds to the perception that nothing less than perfect is accepted to make it to the highest level in your sport.  When you are able to see or become aware of the trials and tribulations athletes face on their way to the top it adds a level of compassion, empathy, and human connection. “If so and so failed and made it this far, then so can I.”

  • Mistakes Foster Responsibility:

Mistakes teach you how to take accountability, responsibility, and ownership of your actions.  Failing at something or making a mistake has the ability to humble you in the most beneficial way. Mistakes force you to look within, embrace who you are, and take ownership of where you are currently at along the path to success – but also to get clear on ‘why’ you pursue this journey in the first place. It is this very reasoning that sits at the very core of you that drives you to keep pushing when it seems like the world is crashing down.  Mistakes teach you who you are and who you can be.

“The only person who never makes mistakes is the person who never does anything.” – Denis Waitley

Now while it’s all good and well to point out the positive side of mistakes, failures, or setbacks, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the emotions a mistake can harness in the heat of the moment. So here are 5 ways that you can manage recovering from an error in the midst of performance:

1. Take a Deep Breath.

First of all, take a deep breath or a few. Breathe deep into the belly and focus on the sensations of the breath – the sight of your mid-section expanding and compressing, the feeling of your breath traveling through your body, and the sound of the inhale and exhale. By doing this not only are you distracting your mind from the negative meaning you give to making a mistake but you are also establishing yourself firmly in the present moment. Your body can only ever be present but your mind has the ability to go into the past, and future as well as join your body in the present moment. When your mind and body are in the same place at the same time, there is a synergy between the two that is the essence of all peak performance.

2. Establish a Mistake Ritual.

A mistake ritual is a gesture and/or statement that individuals use to move on from an error or mistake so as not to distract them from the next play.  A mistake ritual should have a strong positive meaning attached to it to ward off the fear of making mistakes so they don’t perform timidly or hesitant. A mistake ritual allows you to quickly “reset” and get ready for what’s next without wallowing in the past and beating yourself up for having made an error or mistake.

3. Next Play Mentality.

Created in a basketball environment, this concept can be used throughout a variety of sports to re-focus quickly. Being that basketball is a fast-paced, continuous game and players must convert from one end of the floor to the other in the blink of an eye… This requires players to be alert and 100% focused at all times. “Next play” is really a verbal cue to move on from what has just happened so that you can be your best and most effective in this moment. “Next play” leads to more composure and consistency in performance,  because when you take the next play mentality, you are firmly in the present moment and prepared to impact the most important play – this play.

4. Focus on W.I.N.

W.I.N. is a simple but powerful acronym that comes from the famous Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz. It stands for “What’s Important Now?”

Holtz instructed his players to ask themselves this question 35 times a day. He wanted them to think about it when they woke up, and while they were in class, in study hall, in the weight room, on the practice field, standing on the sidelines during a game, and while on the playing field at a game. Holtz wanted his players to be able to learn to focus on what mattered most at any given time.  This is one of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself not only in performance but in everyday life too.

5. Incorporate a Strength-Based Focus.

Failure, mistakes, errors, and setbacks not only have the power to take us out of the present moment but affect our confidence as well. This is why it is important to focus on what you do well.  Athletes spend hours upon hours preparing and training for competition. It is these hours of training that strengthen our skillset and develops these skills to an autopilot stage – where you don’t think. You just ACT!!  Training and working on your skillset is where you get to practice these skills and build confidence around them. Performance, on the other hand, should be very much centered around what you do well. It is in times of adversity that we must remind ourselves of our strengths because you are only one play away from a good play.

“Failure is a lesson learned. Success is a lesson applied.” – Gaddam Anjali

Mistakes and failures teach us the most confronting, honest, and durable lessons in performance and life.  They are an inevitable part of performance and an inevitable part of life.  The fact of the matter is you will always be a student of the sport you love. This means with consistent learning comes inevitable mistakes.

Understand that nobody will be harder on you than YOU!! You set your standards and you set your expectations. if you take anything away from this article, manage your mistakes, failures, adversity, and setbacks with self-compassion, empathy, and humility. Failure has landed the knockout punch on way too many athletes who could’ve gone far in their sport if they just kept going. This journey isn’t easy. It wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. I’ve never seen anyone work hard and not be rewarded with opportunity.

You must fail in order to succeed.

– 𝒞ℴ𝒶𝒸𝒽 𝒞𝒶𝓁.

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