‘Failure is just a step on the road to success’
Sporting Compass: With Dr Pippa Grange and Paul Oliver
As a sports psychologist and founder of Bluestone Edge, I am fortunate to have many conversations with people about the substance and meaning of sport.
My colleague Paul Oliver also engages with people at all levels across the sporting sector to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest news, views and issues.
In this space each fortnight, we will share some of these stories, insights and possibilities in relation to people, culture, ethics and leadership in sport. I hope you enjoy the conversation and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.
All the best, Pippa and Paul
‘Failure is just a step on the road to success’
20 December 2013
Category: WINNING MIND – the art of achieving
Dr Pippa Grange
“So this is Christmas / And what have you done / Another year over / And a new one just begun . . .”
The whimsicalness of this line from the classic John Lennon Christmas jingle carries with it the crippling weight of expectation and judgment; for December is definitely a time when we all take stock and reflect on our achievements (or lack thereof) throughout the past year. It’s when we measure our (often metaphorical) successes and failures, and more often than not, we self-flagellate on why we didn’t or what we couldn’t, rather than being content with what we did.
Sportspeople are no different. They often judge themselves more harshly based on a ‘didn’t win gold/silver is a failure’ mentality. The consequences of this are dangerous, with the pressure to succeed in sport pushing more and more athletes towards a ‘win at all costs’ attitude and inevitable stress-related illnesses. Take Rory McIlroy, who after a troubled year on and off the golf course, said that the mental toll of sport could far outweigh the physical pressures. Or English cricketer Jonathan Trott, who returned to England during the current Ashes cricket series to deal with mental health issues.
We build up our athletes to be gods; but at best they are exceptional people reaching miraculous heights through remarkable deeds. The status of these mythological heroes is a temporary mirage and precarious at best. As one of my favourite sports writers – Simon Barnes from the UK Times – says: “The reason is obvious: humans are not very good at being gods. Their humanity gets in the way”.1 Often the fault doesn’t lie with them, but with us for our irrational expectations.
I’d like to turn this unhealthy preoccupation with success on its head and put it on the record that I think failure is really useful. For without failure we cannot progress longer, higher or faster. It’s a funny paradox – our successes are achieved through trying, and trying most often ends in failure. But we need failure to teach us how to succeed. One of the greatest sportspeople of the last century, NBA legend Michael Jordan, sums up this paradox perfectly:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 2
Or take Shannon McFerran, touted as the best female Australian rules footballer of all time. Despite participating in a recent National Championship where representing her state she achieved best on ground in the grand final, player of the championships and all-Australian captaincy, she is adamant there is no such thing as perfect.
“As a person I like to think I have prepared for whatever it is I want to achieve, however I think it is important to remember that no one’s perfect and you can always improve or do things differently. Being 100% ready would mean you have switched off and stopped listening and learning. On the footy field you can end up with the ball in your hand at any moment and before you know you have kicked a goal or been chased down and tackled to the ground, there are so many moments in life where you’re never 100% ready.” 3
Just like sport, the history of human invention is characterized by a lot more failures than successes, and why wouldn’t it – to err is simply – human. The relentless inventor Sir James Dyson says his bestselling vacuum cleaner is the happy result of failure.
“I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.” 4
Perhaps we are starting to learn that losing isn’t automatically equated with failure. I was recently in London where I read that a number of leading UK private schools have started introducing measures to encourage their high achieving students to accept defeat. Oxford High School for Girls for instance, has introduced a math’s test where it was impossible to get 100 per cent to prevent students becoming obsessed with perfection, while Wimbledon High School ran a ‘failure week’ to teach pupils to build resilience.
There is definitely some momentum in Canada, through their True Sport program, and in Australia, through the Play by the Rules program; to switch the emphasis back to sportsmanship and fair play at all levels of sport and away from a ‘winners and losers’ approach. There is also evidence of a renaissance of coaches emphasizing simple etiquettes at competitions, such as shaking hands before and after games, cheering on the opposition and learning how to lose graciously. These might sound a bit old fashioned, but learning to accept defeat or a lack of success with a handshake is a vital life skill, with a value that cannot be underestimated.
Every day in our general lives and our sporting lives we will win some and lose some; it’s just part of the way life should be. It could be missing out on a promotion, being pipped at the line in a running race or bombing out in an exam – it doesn’t matter – the important lesson is to learn from our failures, reassess, rethink, move forward (sometimes in a different direction) and keep those dreams and goals alive. We might not understand it at the time, but these failures are necessary steps on the road to success.
I’ll end this final blog of the year by thanking everyone for their kind encouragement and support for Bluestone Edge in 2013, and with the words of the song we began with . . .
“A very merry Christmas / And a happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s a good one / Without any fear . . .”
Dr Pippa Grange