Growing up, failure wasn’t part of the family agenda. One of the earliest lessons my mother and grandfather drilled into me as a kid was, “our family doesn’t believe in ‘can’t’ – it’s not in our dictionary.” I come from a long line of go-getters and hard-chargers on both sides of my family, and I’m only a generation or two removed from farmers who built their future with their own hands. A culture of “only accept success” led me to be a high performing student in school and continues to benefit me to this very day.
However, it also led to me having an unhealthy relationship with failure, both as a coach and as an athlete. The truth of the matter is that failure is something that we are all going to experience. The greater our desire for success, the more willing we must be to confront failure. We have to learn how to process failure. In this article I want to unpack a famous mantra for Power Athlete nation – “Eat the Weak” – and discuss how we can use the benefits of failure to empower our success.
But, before I get into how we can address failure in a positive way, it is important that we take a quick look at what an unhealthy relationship with failure looks like. There are a lot of warning signs that can be indicative of this issue; I’ve listed a few that I’m most familiar…because I’ve had to work through them as an athlete and as a person. By understanding them, you can begin to recognize them in yourself and, if you’re a coach, in the athletes you work with.
Unhealthy Failure Relationships
· Blaming others: People who can’t (or don’t) process failure will have an inability to accept it. As a result, they will often end up blaming external factors – other players, teammates, equipment, etc – for their failure. They can’t yet understand that failure can lead to growth. These athletes have to learn to shift blame from others to themselves. Learning to shoulder and embrace failure is a large part of personal growth, both on and off the field.
· Anger: Anger can be triggered by a great many things that are tied to failure: a fear that we will be seen as inadequate, shame that we have let ourselves or others down, guilt that we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. It is vital to realize that, when an athlete presents anger as a symptom, there are things behind the scenes that need to be analyzed.
· Avoidance: When people present this archetypal response, they decide to avoid things they are bad at and instead focus their energy on things that come naturally to them. In the fitness community, this can look like avoiding certain movements or rushing through them. In sport, it can look like avoiding certain skills or phoning it in for certain drills, because the athlete knows they won’t be the best. In the long term, this will prevent them from growing and improving. These athletes may not have enough desire or drive to get better at their sport, or they aren’t “finding the lessons” in their failure, something a good coach can help them with.
· Self–pity: Particularly dangerous, this athlete falls into the trap that there’s no way for them to improve. This athlete has fully internalized failure: they are not “experiencing failure” but have instead “become a failure.” Once this takes hold as a part of someone’s personality, it can be very difficult to remove, and it must be worked through before this athlete can learn to be successful.
The more achievement-oriented someone is, the harder it can be for them to deal with failure. If you’re a Power Athlete, you’re someone who cares about performance and success. In order to continue to succeed, you need to redefine failure, as well as its presence and purpose in your life.
Dealing with Failure
First, accept that failure is inevitable. Whenever we embark on something new, like a sport or training program, it is almost guaranteed that we will not have immediate success. Many of us have come to terms with this level of awareness.
However, what about things we’ve done for a long time? Those skills, drills, and movements we consider ourselves experts in? Is failure still inevitable? If you want to continue to get better, it most certainly is. If a talented high school basketball player needs to improve their jump shot, it’s time for a heavy serving of failure as they accumulate reps that sail over or bounce off the rim. A high-level amateur boxer looking to go pro is going to have to face up to people with a reach advantage, weight advantage, or skill advantage so they can improve. They won’t get to the next level by doing the same things they’ve always done, or by beating up opponents they know they can handle.
Second, another layer to this is that all skills are diminishing, and fields of human activity are constantly evolving. In other words, if you aren’t getting better at what you do, you’re getting worse. That means that for as long as you want to be good at something, you’re going to have to accept the burden of being bad at certain parts of it.
Failure isn’t always our fault. There are plenty of things well outside our control, like an accidental injury or sickness, that can lead to our failure. A weight that felt nice and light last Tuesday when we got 9 hours of sleep can feel insurmountably heavy this week after we only got five hours of sleep and our girlfriend, boyfriend, or girlfriend and boyfriend broke up with us.
This is a main reason that Power Athlete’s foundational program Bedrock has both “resets” and “reloads” built into it, because failing a lift doesn’t always mean you weren’t strong enough. When we don’t recognize this, we see failure as “I was too weak” instead of “I wasn’t strong enough yet, but I will be.” If you haven’t taken advantage of Power Athlete’s linear strength program based around failure-inspired growth, check it out today. If you want to learn how to better coach athletes dealing with this kind of program, check out the online Power Athlete Methodology course.
Also, in sport, we truly cannot control how good our opponent is. You will run up against opponents who are better than you, or maybe even one that just seems to have your number. Failure against that opponent can be debilitating if we internalize it. It is important to experience failure without letting ourselves be overcome by failure. Drop the shame and guilt that can come with these failures that aren’t your fault and embrace the positives: you played to the best of your ability, you gave training all you had that day, you will try again tomorrow stronger and wiser for the stumbling you encountered today.
Sometimes, failure is our fault. We didn’t prepare well enough. Maybe we skipped practice when we should have gone, or we haven’t been attending team lifts and giving it our all. When we run into a failure that is our fault, we need to be honest with ourselves about it and take ownership.
Understand that each and every excuse we make is a bad excuse. Excuses are the opposite of accountability. When you find yourself making an excuse, you must learn to shift that into an accountability statement. “I was unprepared” becomes “I didn’t take time to prepare and will do better next time.” This radical shift in mindset allows us to avoid the trap of shame, guilt, and self-pity and instead immediately turn our failure into a valuable learning experience. If you ever feel like the excuse you’re making is a valid one and can’t find the accountability statement hidden within, it is time to seek out a trusted coach or mentor to guide you towards the growth hidden in your failure.
Now that we’ve accepted the inevitability of failure and its important place as a signifier of growth and excellence, we can begin to manage our expectations. When the only thing that we desire is constant success, failure becomes an obstacle instead of a learning experience. Shifting our focus, we can find the lesson in every failure, and failing becomes the extremely valuable learning tool that it was always meant to be.
By chasing performance and effort, giving it our all and not attached to the necessity for a goal or outcome, we can continue to develop as athletes and as people.
In an age increasingly saturated with social media and online commentators, we must learn to let go of what others think of us and how our performance may look to them. This is especially true of people who don’t know us or our journey.
As Joseph Campbell said, “what they will think of me must be put aside for bliss.”
Go out, play hard, experience failure, and chase your bliss.
Blog: Coaching Kids to Fail by David McKercher
Blog: Empowering Through Failure by Carl Case
Podcast: PA Radio Ep 410 – Self Compassion with Dr. Kristin Neff
Blog: Move the Dirt by Cheyne Zeller
Podcast: PA Radio Ep 310 – Bobby Smith and Athletic Resiliency
Tagged: Art of Coaching / athletic performance / Block One Coach / coach / Coach's Responsibility / Coaches / Coaches Development / coaching / coaching development / Coaching tactics / Conscious Coaching / Eat the Weak / EattheWeak / empower your performance / failure / Get Your Mind Right / Growth Mindset / Human Performance / mental / Mental Game / Mental Preparation / mental toughness / Mental Training / mentality / Mind / Mindset / Performance / Performance Coach / positive mindset / rules for success / sport performance / Sports Performance / Strength / Strength and Conditioning / success / weaknesses
John is a Coach at Underdog Mixed Martial Arts in West Hartford, CT, where he teaches both martial arts and strength & conditioning. For over a decade, Underdog has built several professional fighters, even sending some to the UFC and Bellator. John began training martial arts at a traditional Karate dojo at the age of 6 years old. This was the start of a lifelong journey which has seen him log countless hours in a myriad of styles, including Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Kali, Eskrima, and Jeet Kune Do. In addition, John has spent over a decade working as a professional strength and conditioning coach, coaching at the High School and D-III Collegiate Level. Along with over a dozen other certifications, he holds the distinction of being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA and is honored to be counted as a Power Athlete Block One Coach. He is intensely passionate about empowering athletes to find their max potential and explore their body’s unique capacity for the martial arts.
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