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Handling failure

Handling failure

June, 1999

This issue is all about failure and learning to understand that the building blocks of success on and off the field are setbacks, mistakes and failures. 

If you have a goal that is personally meaningful to you, then your successful completion of this goal depends heavily on how well you handle failure.  Keep in mind: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly (at least in the beginning).  To achieve excellence you must learn to harness the success-generating power of your failures!

ATHLETE’S LOCKER


Want to become a champion? Want to know the one biggest secret to success in and out of sports? Want to know what really separates winners from 

losers in every sport? 

    
The secret to your athletic success is very simple! If you truly want to reach your athletic dreams the one thing you have to learn to do better than most everyone else is….fail! Fail??? That's right! I said, "fail!" Failure is the secret, master key to unlocking the doors to all of your athletic dreams. I know…You think I'm nuts right? Perhaps Dr. G has spent too much time out in the hot summer sun. Failure is suppose to be this terrible thing that you want to avoid at all costs. This nasty, humiliating occurrence that destroys lives and kills motivation, right? Wrong!! Failure is not as 

bad as you think!

   
Understand this. You can't get better as an athlete unless you're 

willing to fail enough! Why? Because failures, mistakes and losses provide you with a valuable source of feedback. They tell you what you did wrong and what not to do next time. In this way failures highlight your weaknesses. What's so wonderful about that? Simple! You can't get better, faster, 
stronger or more skilled in your sport without knowing your shortcomings. Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  Every time that you fail, lose or mess up, you have an opportunity, if you're smart enough to recognize it, to lift the level of your training. 
   
There are two general ways that athletes deal with setbacks and 

failure. The most common one is also the wrong way! That is, using failure as evidence that you're inadequate, weak, "no good", etc. Athletes who do this use their failures to emotionally beat themselves up. This is the athlete who throws his equipment in disgust after the game or the tennis player who loses a match and says to himself, "You idiot! You suck! You have no game! My grandmother could've beaten you today." When you use your mistakes and losses in this way you will not help your training. This kind of self-abuse only serves to kill your confidence, undercut your motivation and interfere with 

your performance.

   
The second way of dealing with failure is the one used by champions.  To them, failure is nothing more than what you have to do to get there. Failure and losses provide the answers to the success puzzle. They tell you exactly what you did wrong and therefore what you need to work on to improve. 


In this way, mistakes and failure supply you with that all important feedback to take you to the next level.


To master anything new, you must start out at the bottom, as a 
beginner. Beginners can only learn by making mistakes and figuring out through these mistakes what not to do the next time in order to get it right. If you give yourself too much of a hard time when you fail, then you'll be more reluctant to take the risks necessary to get you to your goals. Remember Nike's old ad with Michael Jordan talking about all his failures, all the last second shots with the game on the line that he missed, the times he cost his team the game, the time he was cut from his high school basketball squad. The commercial ends with MJ saying, "And it's because of all these setbacks and failures that I'm so successful today."
   
I was the number one singles tennis player for my college and twice Conference Champion. How I got to this level of excellence is quite simple. I had to lose a lot of matches. I had to collect a lot of disappointments. I had to learn to tolerate a tremendous amount of frustration. With every failure I improved just a little more. I built my tennis success on each of my failures and you can too! I learned to speak in front of groups the same way. I started off as awful and got good by messing up a whole lot.

   
Am I telling you that you have to like failing? No Way! Am I telling 
you that mediocrity is OK? Never! I have never met a champion who liked failing. I have never met a consistent winner who was ever satisfied with a half-hearted effort. Winners hate failing with a passion. However, they are smart enough to know that failing is an important part of the process. It's what you have to do to get to success.
   
One final key point about failing and performance. If you are worried about losing or messing up, then chances are good that you will perform badly. You will always do your best when you have absolutely nothing to lose. Athletes always choke when they get too focused on the outcome. Forget failing. It's not the end of the world! Stop tying your ego up with the outcome of your game, match or race. Failure is not your enemy! Instead, failure is a very important training partner! Losing is nothing more than
feedback. Open your eyes and ears and treat your setbacks this way. Learn from them! Don't dwell on them! Then forget them!

Remember…Failure is feedback and feedback is the breakfast of champions!

If you're interested in more techniques to help you turn mistakes into failure read Dr. G's new book, Sports Slump Busting or listen to his mental toughness training audio-cassette programs.

PARENTS’ CORNER

It's bases loaded, 2 out and the bottom of the last inning when your child steps up to the plate. The team is down by just one run and a hit here will more than likely win the game. Chance for your child to be a hero and send her team on to the next round of the playoffs. An out here and the season's over with the failure resting squarely on your child's shoulder's. You watch your kid move up to the plate and you can see the intensity on her face…or is that nervousness. Speaking of nervousness, how are you feeling right about now? If you're a father chances are good that you're entertaining fantasies of glory, delighted that your child has a chance to win it all! If you're a 
mother you may be dying inside a little and cursing the bad luck that your child has to hit in this situation at all. And what about all those old frustrations from your own childhood athletics. Are they rearing their ugly little heads now?
    
The pitcher seems to wait forever. Finally, there's the wind-up. Here comes the pitch…Your child takes a mighty cut and comes up with nothing but air. STRIKE ONE! You hear a little voice in your head praying feverishly, "Please God let her get a hit, Get a hit! Get a hit! Here comes the second pitch and you can see it before it reaches the plate, a high fast ball way out of the strike zone. Suddenly, unexpectedly your Babe Ruth goes after it! She needs a 

ladder to hit that and her mighty, nearly vertical swing again comes up with nothing but air. STRIKE TWO! The crowd's going nuts. The tension's mounting. Your stomach's in a knot and you desperately need a bathroom.It now becomes clear to you that your child is too caught up in the pressure of the moment. Why else would she swing at such garbage. Again the inner chatter takes over reaching a feverish pitch in your head, "Get a hit! Get a 
hit! Please, pleeeeease get a hit! You try to remain calm and appropriate on the outside as your inner control begins slipping rapidly.

Here comes the next pitch. It's the moment of truth. You hold your breath along with the rest of the crowd. Time seems to slow right down as your child takes a Ruthian cut at the ball, "crushing" it straight back to the pitcher at a torrid 2 miles an hour pace. The crowd lets out a tremendous groan…or is that just you? The pitcher makes the easy play to end the game. There's no 
joy in Mudville tonight. Your child has failed! You're in the car with them on the way home. There's so much that you want to say. In this wonderful teaching moment with your child, what's the best thing to do? How would an appropriate parent handle this situation? Choose from the selection below?

a) Let your child know that she's let you down and totally embarrassed 
you and herself.

b) Inform your child that she will not be fed dinner tonight

c) Remind your offspring that she's blowing your chances for a college 

scholarship that you both have been working towards.

d) Help your child technically understand what she did wrong and exactly what she needs to do to improve for next time.

e) All of the above 

Hopefully you understand that answers "a-e" are all wrong. D is not the right answer. It is not your job to critique or coach your child after a loss or setback. So what should you do when your child fails, when they blow the game winning kick, miss those critical last second free throws or end up dead last?First let's start with what not to do: 

1) Don't offer helpful advice about what they did wrong. (That's the 
coach's job).  If they sincerely ask for your feedback and can use it without 

getting defensive then it's fine to say something. Otherwise, mum's the word.

2) Don't criticize your child in any way for failing. (Coach's job again)

3) Don't express (verbally or non-verbally) your disappointment in them. 

4) Don't make excuses for their failure by blaming the ref, opponent or coach, etc. (This will not teach your child how to be responsible or a good sport).
5) Don't tell them how proud you are that they did a "fine" job when 
they didn't.

6) Don't get angry with them or ask them why they failed. (I've never 

met an athlete that wants to fail). 

7) Don't try to make them feel better. (They've earned the right to feel 

badly and they are entitled to feel that way for a time).


Understand that failure is a very important part of your child's learning experience. Try not to take the experience of failure away from them. One of the hardest things for parents to do is to watch their children fail. Don't worry. Failure will make them smarter and stronger. After all, it worked for you, didn't it? So enough about what not to do. What should you do when your child fails?

1. Do let your child be upset. Disappointment is fine. They earned it, let' em feel it as long as they deal with it appropriately. (Being a poor 
sport, breaking equipment or fighting are not appropriate ways of handling disappointment and failure).

2. Do be understanding at the right time. Right after a loss is frequently not the best time to offer your understanding. Better to wait an hour or two before you say anything. 

3. Do be empathic. Let them know that you know how they feel (take the time to figure this out) and that their feelings make sense given the 

circumstances.

4. Do offer a perspective on the performance, i.e. sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Let them know bad performances are just part of sports. Everybody has them!

5. Do be emotionally supportive. Your primary job with your child in 

relation to their sports is to be their "best fan."

6. Do help your child learn from the loss or failure. Teach them the 

value of failure as the necessary feedback to improve. Teach them that success is built on a strong foundation of failure. Ask them what lessons they can learn from this particular failure. 

7. Do keep their sport in perspective and treat their losses and 

failures for what they are, a learning opportunity and nothing more. The 

outcome of a game, race or match is not larger than life. Help them see this.

8. Do let them know that the important things in their lives have not changed and that you love them no matter what.

9. Do encourage them to talk with the coach later on about what they 

might be able to do to improve or correct in their performance.

10. Do take them for ice cream anyway!!!

Believe it or not your child's failure provides you with a wonderful teaching opportunity. Helping children learn to master and utilize failures and setbacks is giving them the gift of success in everything that they'll do in their life! For a great teaching tool for parents and coaches listen to Dr. G's Parent's and Coach's Guide to Winning at the Youth Sports Game. If you want to really help your child feel and perform like a winner this audio-cassette program is for you! Do you know an athlete who is stuck in a slump, blocked by fears or consistently underachieving? Do you know someone who always seems to perform better in practice than in competition? I can help them with my special, mental toughness phone consultation service! My specialty is getting athletes unstuck and back on track. My book, Sports Slump Busting, is based on the work that I've done with thousands of athletes at every level. I know what you're thinking. How can talking on the phone for 4-6 weeks to a total stranger possibly help an athlete improve their performance? Well don't just take my word for it! Visit my web site www.competitivedge.com, click on individual consultation and read what other athletes, coaches and parents have to say about my mental toughness training. 

COACH’S OFFICE

BUILDING STRONGER, MENTALLY TOUGHER ATHLETES FROM FAILURES, MISTAKES AND SETBACKS

Let's start with a few basic understandings before I try to sell you on the virtues of failing. A "good" coach sells two things to his/her athletes: #1 The pursuit of excellence; #2 The value of hard work. Both of these "products" have a built in intolerance for mediocrity. Half-hearted efforts and poor results do not warm the hearts of any coaches that I know. It is therefore a coach's job to regularly push an athlete out of his comfort zone until they achieve a certain level of conditioning and skill execution.Having said this let me make one very important point. How you deal with your athlete's failures to achieve a desired level of performance, how you handle 
their mistakes and failures will dramatically affect their overall 
motivation, ability to successfully handle pressure and how well they'll concentrate during competition. Far too many coaches mishandle their athletes and teams failures and in doing so inadvertently create more performance problems.

As I've mentioned throughout this newsletter, failure is nothing more than a very important building block of success. Your athletes have to fail enough times in order to achieve a certain level of proficiency in the sport. Failure provides an athlete with the valuable feedback of what not to do next time in order to ultimately get it right. Because of this I feel that it is critical that you approach your athletes' failures intelligently. What do I mean by "intelligently?" 

   
The wrong or less intelligent way for you to deal with your team's losses and mistakes is to get "emotionally hijacked" by them. That is, when your team loses you "lose it." You yell, scream, threaten and punish the offending parties. Singling out a player in from of his teammates and humiliating him for "letting the team" down is destructive in the long run. Now I'm not saying that you should ignore these mistakes and "ho hum" your team's sub-par play. I'm not suggesting that you should kindly accept such mediocrity. What I am saying is when you get angry and how you work on their failures is critical. 

    
Harping on mistakes and getting overtly angry during games will ultimately backfire in your face. Jumping on your athletes during a time out or half time will most often distract them from the important task at hand and make them too uptight to play well. Why? An athlete has an important mental job to do during competition in order to perform well. They must keep their head in the "now" of the performance. Staying in the "now", focusing on one play at a time will increase their chances of playing to their physical potential. 
Furthermore, it is only in the "now" that they will be able to successfully execute the way that you've coached them. When an athlete screws up, that mistake is in the "past." At this point his job is to leave the mistake behind him and quickly return his focus to the "now" of the competition.  Athletes who can't mentally let go of their mistakes will always end up making more of them. 
    
So what should you do when your team is playing like garbage or one of your athletes is messing up left and right? The constructive way of dealing with this situation is to first clearly tell them what they are doing wrong and then spell out exactly what you need them to do in order to get it right. After that you want to immediately get them refocused back on the game. If you want them to mentally let go of their mistake during the game then you have to let go of it too. Remember, you can dwell on the screw-ups all you want the next day in practice. 

    
Athletes always play their best when they have absolutely nothing to lose and are oblivious to the possibility of making mistakes. Similarly, an athlete orteam will play their worst when they are concentrating on how much is at 
stake and the "what if's" of losing or otherwise screwing up. Be aware that what you say to your athletes before and during the game directly and immediately affects how much of their focus gets caught up in the outcome. The more relaxed attitude you can have on the bench towards mistakes, the easier it will be for your athletes to leave them behind and keep their minds in the flow of the game. 
    
Too many athletes worry about getting benched whenever they make a mistake. Perhaps you as their coach have a quick "trigger finger" and pull kids out of the game immediately following a screw-up. If that's your style, fine. 

However, what you must do is prepare your athletes ahead of time for this. Let them know this is what you'll do and that when you send them back in the competition you want their heads back in the game and NOT on the mistake or 

whether they are going to get yanked again. The last thing you want your athletes doing in a competitive situation is worrying about when the "hook" 

is coming. 

    
Coaches, Dr. Goldberg's latest book, Sports Slump Busting is filled with information that can help you train mentally tougher athletes. Learn how to spot and avoid the mental traps that coaches, athletes and teams regularly fall into. Learn how to teach your kids to quickly let go of their mistakes and better handle pressure. Dr. G's books and tapes can help you raise the level of your coaching and give you the competitive advantage. 

DR G’S TEACHING TALES

In 1992 world-class decathlete, Dan O'Brien was on track for a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. He was the current world champion, had a contract with Reebok sports and was a sure bet for the US team and another world record at the Olympics. At Olympic Trials he was in first place after seven events. Pole vault, one of his strongest events was next. His confidence level was so high that he waived the earlier heights. When the competition started at around 8.5 feet he passed. When the bar got up to 12 feet he passed and continued to do so until the bar reached 15 feet, 9 inches, his normal starting height. O'Brien ran down the runway for his first jump, planted his pole and took off. As he did so, out of the corner of his eye he got distracted by the landing pit because the padding in it was arranged in an unfamiliar way. As a consequence he hit the bar. The same exact thing happened on the second jump. Now O'Brien had one jump left and the pressure was starting to mount.
    
As he waited on the runway to go his mind was entertaining a lot of subversive thoughts. "What if I miss this jump? Then I "no-height" the event and will be disqualified. If I'm DQ'ed I won't make the US team. I won't go to Barcelona, won't be able to win a gold medal and stand to lose millions of dollars in endorsement money. Not to mention the fact that if I don't make 

the team, I'll make a total fool of myself in front of the world. I don't think this outcome is too hard to figure out. With all this negativity floating around in Dan's head he tightened up and missed his third
and final jump. He was off the team! This was the biggest case of choking in the history of track and field! O'Brien was humiliated and devastated.Failures like this are enough to send a career spiraling down the tubes into oblivion. O'Brien started to head there but a chat with gold medal decathlete Bruce Jenner helped him get his head back together again.Within a year after the Barcelona Olympics, O'Brien was back in form and reset the world record. Shortly after he accomplished this he was quoted as saying that his humiliating failure at the Trials was "the best thing that had ever happened to me." Why?
    
How can such an embarrassing and devastating failure be a good thing? Dan was obviously smart enough to understand that failure is very much like a box of Cracker Jacks. There's always a surprise inside. There is always a valuable learning hidden in even the most painful of failures. In fact, sometimes the more difficult the failure, the more beneficial the learning will be. What did Dan O'Brien learn? As he put it, he learned "where I was weak."  He 

claimed that this failure highlighted weaknesses in two of his events as well as the fact that he wasn't mentally tough enough. 

    
Being smart about failure, O'Brien then set out to constructively work on these shortcomings. He worked with his coach to improve his technique and with a sports psychologist from US Track and Field to strengthen his "mental muscles." Remember you always have two options when you fail. First, you can beat yourself up with the failure and use it as evidence that you're not good enough. Second, you can learn from your failures and get a whole lot better. Evidently O'Brien chose the latter path. Since his devastating failure in 1992 he has dominated the sport, winning Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996 and gold at the Goodwill Games in 1998.

    
Keep in mind, you don't have to like failing. You can even hate it with a passion. However, you can't really get better in your sport or anything else you do unless you fail enough times and then look to these failures for their valuable learnings.

About

Dr. Goldberg is a noted sports psychology expert Read more about Dr. G