Accept Failures — They Mean You’re Moving Forward

Athletes fail on a daily basis, in practices and in competition. Let me repeat it. Athletes fail… all the time… every day… day after day. From minor mistakes perfecting a move to major collapses on and off the field, these failures put athletes in a vulnerable make-it-or break-it place throughout their careers. The position of each part of the body–from a toe to the tip of the nose–must be so precise that a deviation by a fraction of an inch can make a difference between a solid landing or a painful fall.

Until perfection is mastered to a point of consistent repetition, the disappointment of failed attempts will be an inevitable part of athletes’ daily existence. Physical stress of failing a move, compounded by psychological trauma caused by the frustration over continuing failures, can be devastating if you haven’t built up sufficient resilience to it. But how and why do athletes do that?

Build Stamina to Failing

When you try something new, chances are high that you have to work through a number of unsuccessful attempts before getting a hang of it. Same is with learning or perfecting a sport. Mastering hitting a ball on target, spinning on one foot on the ice or running fast over a distance takes time and practice. And it will take you through a number of failures before you can do it longer, faster or more precisely than someone else, and many more to do it better than anyone else. Many may give up after the first unsuccessful attempt, but others will try again… and again… and again… Until it finally works.

Some will get there quicker than others because of their natural physical ability. But by no means it is an indication of long-term success. Mistakes will occur and compound the longer you try something. And the longer you try it, the greater are chances that a mistake will break your successful streak. What separates those naturally inclined from late bloomers is intelligent learning and perseverance amid failure and rejection.

Realize That Disappointment is Temporary

Like everything else in life, the initial driving force behind trying has emotional context. Whether you enjoy the activity and the atmosphere of trying something new, being with your family or friends, or imitating something you saw other people do well on TV or online, you are more likely give it a try even if you’re not good at it in the beginning. The longer you do it, however, the more the initial excitement will wear off under the weight of compiling mistakes.

As the frustration begins to set in, so intelligent learning should gradually overtake first excitement. You begin to reflect on what you did right to make the move, avoid a mistake and maybe improve an earlier attempt. If something happened by pure luck, can you retrace your steps back to the beginning and replicate the lucky error, but this time make it intentional?

Celebrate Small Improvements

Self-reflection is actually fun once the adjustments you consciously made bring a desired outcome. Test it again and see if you can now make it consistent. It probably won’t happen right away. But the thrill of being able to do something you couldn’t do before, even twice on a row, will bring about a new waive of excitement. Congratulations, you deserve to enjoy it! Make a video, add a soundtrack and share online so your friends can join the celebration.

But let’s not lose focus of the fact that getting to that point has taken you through a number of repeated failures. It was challenging, frustrating and unrewarding… until now. But in the process, you got used to overcoming the challenge of failure. Try something new and you may experience how the anticipation of success expands your resistance to the initial emotional discomfort. That’s how athletes grow to accept failures through a repeated cycle of intelligent learning, when the satisfaction of potential accomplishment takes over the disappointment of a temporary setback.

Learn to Learn From Mistakes

Over time, the inevitability of making mistakes makes athletes callous to failure without even using that word. Instead of calling repeated mistakes a failure, it is often reframed as an area that “needs improvement.” But in reality, this is just a nicer way to say that you still have a major weakness in your performance that your competitors will exploit unless you learn to avoid it.

That brings us to the point of having to deal with continual mistakes. Resistance to failure does not mean being insensitive or indifferent to it. To the contrary, intelligent learning is based on self-reflection which requires a healthy dose of sensibility. That means you are aware of the mistakes you make but can put them in perspective of an overall learning progress. You will analyze the mistakes preventing you from perfecting a move, make the necessary corrections, and work diligently and intelligently to avoid them in every conceivable situation. In sports, it is called training.

Failing Today Means Winning Tomorrow

It is not accidental that failures are an integral part of success. Failures allow us to reflect on the cause of a mistake, make adjustments, and move on to achieving a coveted result. Failures force us to slow down, giving time and space for analysis and helping avoid real harm to our physical and mental health. What you get by dealing with failures is a more methodical, gradual and cerebral learning experience that delivers lasting results.

In sports, the permanence of failure as a crucial ingredient of success is even more evident. After all, it is those who make less mistakes in competition — or who have found a way to deal with failures by making the right adjustments— become winners.

Sports Lawyer, Former Pro Ice Skater, Author of The Sports Lawyer Diaries: reflections on athletes’ essential character traits, motivations and life choices.