The Positive Side of Failure

Monday, August 8, 2016 | By Suzanne Flannigan
 
 
 
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The Positive Side of Failure

No one likes to fail, and yet, we all do. As a matter of fact, we fail quite often. As an athlete, I have failed spectacularly in some of my races. As a coach, I have prepared athletes to race and then watched them fail epically. In each painful scenario, something has triggered an unraveling of the months of training and pre-race work, resulting in a dismal day.

Whether it is your own or your athletes’ implosion, it’s a tremendous, and I would say competitive, opportunity to learn about success. This is because true failure, defined most simply as maximal effort that falls way short of the end goal, is cellular level learning at it’s best. It is quintessential fact finding in action that yields a treasure trove of data about the mind and body as it deals with the unknown. Failure is a roadmap for success.

When you train, your primary goal is to build deep physical fitness along with enduring mental and emotional fortitude in order to withstand the inevitable accumulation of fatigue, experienced as pain. When you fail, things either do not go as planned, or things happened that required you to adjust in ways that significantly limited or prevented you from achieving your original goal. For instance, race day could dawn with unseasonably cold, wet and windy conditions. Many age group athletes and even pros might fail to finish the race, most as a result of the harsh weather. What might these athletes gain? Simply put, a road map for success. Here’s how.

Failure Fills Your Database

When you fail to meet an objective, you acquire data about what you need to do to meet your objective the next time. You get answers to all kinds of questions you would never otherwise have asked yourself. What if I lose my nutrition? What if I get too cold? What if I faint? The greater the failure, the more intensely we live the experience, and the deeper the data is embedded in both our physical and emotional bodies. For example, if your hands are so numb and cold you cannot squeeze your brakes, you absorb the physical sensations of pain. At the same time, you experience the emotional fear of not being able to stop while racing headlong down a rain-soaked hill.

Beyond what you are immediately aware of, your senses also upload all kinds of additional peripheral and residual data into your database of experiences. Even though you might not be able to do anything with the information at the time, you now understand the effects of the conditions better. This allows you to act proactively in the next cold race.  

Failure Fills Your Confidence Tank

Failure builds confidence in your ability to endure. It makes you rethink your definition of success. Many athletes who finish a race under extreme conditions consider their race a victory, notwithstanding missing their time goals in many cases by large margins. For many, simply persevering is the toughest thing they’ve ever done, and now they know they can survive it. I know of one woman who ran an entire IRONMAN marathon in her socks because she couldn’t find her transition bag. She didn’t accept outside assistance, which would have disqualified her, but you can see how her focus might have shifted from placing to surviving.

Failure reminds you that the greater truth about a person’s ability to endure is in the entire journey, not just one outcome. The deepest confidence comes not from a single moment in time when you cross the finish line but rather in the thousands and thousands of moments that you experience which get you to the finish line.

Failure Forces Your Hand

Failure shows you first hand exactly what it takes and how hard it is to achieve a big goal. We’ve all heard the expression, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Failure forces you to decide whether you are tough enough to go back and do it again and again until you succeed. It forces you to face your goals and ask just how much you really want them. It forces you to decide how to move forward. You can choose to commit more deeply, change your goals, or let go and move on to something else. Bad conditions can bring you to your knees, but they can also bring out your best because that’s when you truly realize what your goal means to you. The spontaneous eruption of joy when you do succeed is ever so much sweeter and more meaningful because of all of your previous failures.

Failure Forces Your Head

Failure makes you think. At first you condemn and rant, then pout before you accept. All the while, you process what happened during the race. You re-imagine the many moments of truth and run all of the “what if” scenarios that might have made a difference. You hash through the details of the race until no one wants to listen anymore. Your download of experience allows for deeper learning, which leads to a much greater appreciation of the complexity of factors that make up successful endurance racing. Failure, while often devastating to the psyche in the moment, shows you what you are made of at a point in time and gives you all the data you need to figure out how to be better.

While painful at the time, failure can provide you with a roadmap to success. When you truly learn this lesson, you can begin to understand that failure is success!

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