Understanding & Using the feelings of failure: Your doorway to success

By: Dr. Alan Goldberg
The truth of the matter is that as an athlete, you can’t reach your goals and dreams without enough failures and setbacks! In fact, in everything that you do, both on and off the playing fields, your failures are a prerequisite for your eventual success! This statement usually blows the minds of most athletes I come in contact with who mistakenly view losing and failure as bad things. How can failure be positive and constructive? Is this an Alice In Wonderland kind of thing where “up” is suddenly “down” and “down” is now “up?” Hardly!

The typical athlete tends to have an adversarial relationship with failing and making mistakes. He/she views both as something embarrassing and noxious to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, when you view failing and making mistakes as bad, you become more vulnerable to being overwhelmed by performance pressures when you compete.

If you are afraid of losing or making mistakes and these fears are somewhere near your consciousness at game time, then you are far more likely to perform tentatively. This is because you will be weighed down by the burden of how much you have to lose in the competition. Your “outcome focus” will tighten your muscles, distract your concentration from the flow of the game and insure that your performance will be way off, a mere shadow of your full potential. If you fear failing and/or making mistakes you will play as if you were tied in knots. Since the secret to peak performance is being physically and mentally relaxed, fear of failure/making mistakes tightens you up and makes peak performance impossible. The ultimate irony here is that your worry about making mistakes and failing will actually insure that you will do both a lot!

Going into any competition fearing failure, while quite common, means that you have developed an unhealthy relationship with it. It means that you really don’t understand the true nature of failing. Instead, you must learn to cultivate a very different, healthier relationship with failing and making mistakes, a relationship based upon relaxed acceptance. Losing and making mistakes are NOT your arch-enemies! They are, instead natural parts of the process of growth and development as an athlete and a person. They are important components of a vehicle that will ultimately lead you to success.

Keep in mind that when I talk about a “relaxed acceptance” of failure, I am NOT for one minute suggesting that you embrace mediocrity. I am not telling you that you should feel pleased with yourself whenever you lose or fail. If you’re like any serious athlete, then you hate losing with a passion. For the committed athlete, this is a normal response to failure. Understand that acceptance of failing doesn’t mean that you suddenly stop trying or give up on your pursuit of excellence. It simply means that you must view failure constructively as a natural part of the success process. Failing and making mistakes are what every athlete at every level does a lot of!

Understand that no one breaks into the athletic arena and experiences only perfection and success. This is not the real world! This doesn’t even happen in a Disney movie! There are always obstacles to be overcome, big mistakes to be made and failures and setbacks to suffer through. Simply put, you can’t go from recreational/beginner athlete to accomplished/elite performer without a whole lot of heartache and failure thrown in along the way. You can’t reach a high level of competence in your sport without first experiencing a fair amount of incompetence! This concept is the very heart of learning and mastery.

The learning process in and out of sports always involves failures. Every time that you lose or fall short, you are presented with an opportunity to take a positive step forward in your sport. This is because failure provides you as an athlete with very valuable information about what you just did wrong. When you look carefully enough, and don’t get distracted by the accompanying emotions, failure will almost always tell you what you need to do differently next time in order to get better results.

This isn’t remarkable information I’m sharing with you. This is the foundation of establishing muscle memory that accomplished sports performance is based upon. By repeating a skill over and over again, your muscles eventually learn that “just right feel” of executing the skill correctly. Without all the repetitions, both correct and incorrect, you could never master that particular skill. The incorrect repetitions in this process are equally as valuable to your learning as the times that you do the skills correctly. Simply put, by doing it wrong enough times you eventually learn to do it right. For example, a gymnastics coach once told me that the learning of a basic skill on any apparatus requires that you must do that skill wrong at least 300 times before you can get begin to get it right.

Isn’t this just like what your Kindergarten teachers repeatedly told you way back when? “It’s OK to make mistakes children because you always learn from them.” Let’s go back even further. This is exactly how you learned to walk as a baby. The process of falling enough times taught your infant body and muscles how to successfully balance and coordinate themselves so that you could eventually move upright without falling.

We could stand to learn a lot from our baby selves. As a baby, your attitude towards mistakes and failing was a much healthier one than you probably have today. Intuitively, your baby self understood that falling was how you learned to walk. When you did fall, there was no negative judgment or self-directed anger. You didn’t get discouraged or begin to think negatively that “I’ll NEVER learn to walk!” As a one year old, you hadn’t been taught the self-limiting myth that making mistakes and failing was a cause for embarrassment and upset. So when you fell, you simply picked yourself up and tried again and again. It was only later that your parents, siblings, teachers and/or the larger society eventually convinced you that making mistakes and failing was something awful and embarrassing that needed to be avoided.

Intellectually most of us have taken in the lesson from school that “you learn from your mistakes.” Intellectually! However, the vast majority of us have not yet learned this lesson on an emotional level. What do I mean by this? Making mistakes and failing are almost always accompanied by very powerful, seemingly negative emotions! Losing and failing hurts! It’s embarrassing and frustrating! It’s discouraging, depressing, demoralizing and disappointing. Furthermore, if you fail enough times, heavy-duty self-doubts begin to kick in. Enough failures get you to start questioning your ability to ever get things right and achieve your goals. All these feelings make up a very potent, emotional cocktail!

In fact, these feelings of failure are extremely intense and compelling, causing us to get “emotionally hijacked” by them. Instead of being able to put the failure or mistake in the proper perspective as a learning experience, we’re left feeling badly about ourselves. Understand this: It is absolutely critical that you not get distracted by the seemingly negative quality of these emotions. In the long run, these feelings of failure are NOT negative. On the contrary!! Their negative appearance is only part of their camouflage. Within these uncomfortable feelings lie the seeds to your ultimate success in everything that you do in life. It’s these feelings of failure that make up the doorway to success that I’ve been talking about. You must learn to recognize these feelings as something both normal and positive. You must learn to interpret the feelings of failure as something that you move towards, NOT away from. Success can only be yours when you get in the habit of doing this.

What this means is that feelings of discouragement, for example, are supposed to be there as you travel along the road to success. They are nothing more than a street sign pointing you in the right direction! Do not interpret them for what they appear to be: a reason to feel badly about yourself and give up! When you feel discouraged, these emotions actually mean that you’re getting closer to your goal, NOT further away. It’s the same thing with feelings of frustration and self-doubts. Rather than allowing these feelings to dictate a lack of effort and potential quitting, reframe them as a positive sign that you are actually getting closer to your goal. When you view these feelings of failure as a sign that you are moving towards success, you will always respond to setbacks with renewed determination, motivation and increased effort. It’s this kind of motivated response to failure that will ultimately help you push through that doorway and achieve success.

Remember, every athlete feels these so-called negative feelings when they fail or consistently mess up. Experiencing the feelings of failure doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Making mistakes and failing are temporary events. As long as you pick yourself up and keep going, they are NOT permanent. The feelings that go with them need to be reframed by you as you experience them. That is, you must get in the habit of changing the meaning of these feelings of discouragement, disappointment, frustration, self-doubts and anger. Recognize them for what they really are: The doorway to success. See them. Experience them. Tell yourself that they are supposed to be there and keep moving forward towards them!