For my first 12 years of my career I have got every job that I have ever gone for. In the last year I have applied for 12 jobs and have not been called to interview for one. Utter failure on my behalf. Surely my self-esteem, my self-worth, my self-efficacy should be completely destroyed, right? No, and I can only put that down to sport.
There is a lot of failure in playing sport. The obvious failure is losing. I’ve experienced my fair share of that both as a performer and as a coach over the 26 years I have been involved in sport. In my first year in my current school my rugby team lost 14 out of 15 fixtures. My line manager placed a P45 in my pigeonhole at the end of the season (departmental banter). However with failure in sport I don’t just mean winning and losing. I mean failing to execute a skill properly or make a correct decision. In my own personal experience there is a lot of missing touch, selling a team mate short, dropping a pass, hitting the bar, kicking too late and miss hitting the ball. Al Pacino’s character, Tony D’Amato, in the movie Any Given Sunday sums it up much better than I can do:
“You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game
life or football
the margin for error is so small.
one half step too late or to early
you don’t quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast
and you don’t quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game
every minute, every second.”
Failure comes with the territory in sport. There is no success in sport without failure. Failure in sport is the key mechanism of success. You don’t think Roger Federer has ever failed? You don’t think Pele has ever failed? You don’t think Jonny Wilkinson has ever failed? I remember watching him doing a kicking practice, when I was an NQT, at Limerick University. I was over on a pre-season rugby trip with my new school, he was with Newcastle at the time taking on Munster in a pre-season friendly. I watched him for almost an hour and a half kicking after the main training session had ended and everyone else had headed off to the showers. Every time he missed a kick, which was quite a few, he analysed it with his kicking coach and then worked on it some more. Michael Jordan, one of my childhood hero’s, has a famous quote that describes just this process:
For me when learning a new sport there is a lot of trial and error. In some ways I see similarities with Karl Popper and his thoughts on growth of scientific knowledge. (I’ve only briefly studied this for my philosophy lessons, so if I have misunderstood, please let me know). Growth proceeds from our problems and our attempt to solve them. We try to eliminate theories which are false and determine the best of those which are still available to us. In sport we produce movements that fail, we try to find ones that don’t fail as much. Even when we find movements that are really good, we still fail. We keep looking for the best fit, eliminating those that really don’t help us. Failing is an important part of the process of making our movement better, of making our decisions better.
So if it’s so important, then why do we hate it so much? I’m not sure any of us enjoy failure. With failure comes an emotional response, however somewhere it must be doing some good. If we persist there may be the chance we can overcome the failure, make necessary adjustments and adapt. All achievement depends on the tolerance of failure, if so, then failure is the mark of aspiration, of aiming higher than our current standings. Sport, for me, is a way of getting accustomed to failure. Not necessarily liking it, but understanding its role in the process of progress. Helping us become personally acquainted with it, knowing our response to it and how to move beyond it. Sport can give us a safe place to fail. It isn’t life or death. Making failure a common practice is one way of overcoming it. Sport has allowed me to do that. But I don’t think it is enough.
You have to also recognise failure and your own capabilities. Without recognising it you may keep doing the same thing, over and over with no improvement, just continuing to fail without noticing it. In a critique about Growth Mindset, @disidealist described this as asking a Penguin to flap harder so it could fly. Without the ability to recognise failure you might not necessarily see if you have reached your level, or bitten off more than you can chew. This recognition can encourage humility and assist in striving to do better. It also makes you acutely aware of complacency. Being able to step back and remove the emotion from the equation if possible will help to allow to pick up those signs of failure. It also allows you to gather information on that failure. Why have I failed? How do I overcome it? How do I adapt? Can I adapt? Do I need to find another way or a different approach? Sport allows you to do that in many vivid and varied ways, from the preparation on the training ground, to every minute during the game, to the final result and then the analysis beyond. The essence of sport is striving, failing and then finally succeeding. Enjoy this success as it is a brief moment before the striving and failing begins again in an endless cycle. Experiencing this on the sports field makes me less likely to walk away and be crushed from the failures and set backs I have taken professionally in the last year. I will continue to seek feedback after rejection, making the adjustments I need and learning through trial and error. Learning through failure.
So if failure is an essential step on the road to success, then sport is an essential training ground to help cope with failure.