Why Failing Matters
The fear of failure has become so prevalent in our culture that it has changed the way we look at all aspects of our lives. We lower the bar so “success” comes easier and we reward participation and completion as successes, even at the cost of recognizing those who win or excel. However, this over compensation for protecting people’s views of their achievements comes at a high price, actually hurting the things that are most important.
The development of Drive, Direction, Focus, Grit and Winning are undermined and diluted when we lose sight of the importance of failure and avoid it, rather than embrace it.
Within the sport of Triathlon, we have seen races where podiums now go 10 deep. With this attempt to keep more people happy and turning up to future races year after year, one has to wonder if it takes some of the meaning away from winning.
The effect of this failure avoidance and lowering of the bar while noticeable within races is becoming even more noticeable in training. Coaches are now prescribing training to avoid failure, rather than to chase success. Failure within training is critical for the long term growth and development of athletes at all levels and avoiding it will either slow or halt ongoing progress. It is easy with beginner athletes and developing athletes to see improvements without having failure built into their programs, but once you want to reach beyond this level, failure is critical to success.
I believe strongly that with performance based age group athletes and elites that you should have a large percentage of workouts designed to elicit failure in training. The reason for this is that without pushing to failure it is difficult to know your limits or to be able to push beyond them. When you set out a session plan, every athlete wants to be able to achieve what was set. But if you can always reach what you grasp for, then you will never know what you are capable of, or how to push beyond it.
“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm”
Over the past 15 years that I have worked with ITU elite athletes and in particular juniors, I have noticed that our top juniors often fail to become elite seniors, despite the fact that we put so much effort and money into their development. This is contrasted by the fact that many of our athletes that do not always stand out as juniors, often go onto succeed as seniors. The reason for this delayed success I believe lies not as much in the ability of the athletes that succeed, but rather in the skills they learn by failing, reassessing, planning and learning. These skills while often painful at the time temper athletes for success when it really matters.
So how do we use failure to become better coaches and/or better athletes’? I think the answer to this question starts in training. If we accept failure as an inevitable part of the process we have a way to focus on where the real gains in performance can come, and from their it flows into races. We need to start by explaining why it is important to fail to athletes. If you set up training session for athletes to fail, then many will feel like failures. However, if you educate your athletes to the importance of failure so they understand the “WHY” for when they come up short in training and can reassess, plan and learn then the road forward will become much clearer. You will also see a marked improvement in training and racing results.
In races sometimes we hold back because we fear failure when we should often push forward. While there will be races where sticking closely to a pre-laidout plan is a smart move, don’t be afraid to add in races that are designed to test and extend your athletes. You will never know what you are capable of until you force yourself to the limit.
“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed”
While we all want our athletes to be happy, and setting up their training for success always seems like the right idea, don’t overlook the importance of failure. If you can put aside the short term goals, for long term developmental gains, both you as a coach and your athletes will be better for it and it will show in their results and confidence, which is what really matters.
By Justin Trolle