Every Olympian Excels at Failure

Failure is a key stepping stone to self-development and success.

Every time the Olympic, Paralympic or Commonwealth Games come around people across the globe tune in to watch athletes perform incredible physical feats with astounding precision or creativity or speed or strength. We cheer loudest as our fellow patriots climb the podium. What we might forget in that triumphal moment is that those athletes arrived at that spot partly because they learned how to fail well.

One of the top professional and Olympic doubles tennis players in the world once told me that two-thirds of his sporting career had been all about losing, and only one-third winning. During our conversation, he didn’t seem overly regretful about it – and he certainly didn’t shy away from using the term failure. He said, “Over the years I have won many games, but I’ve lost more, and each time I am determined to learn something…to get even better through those losses.” He didn’t sugar coat the experience either. He talked about how much it “truly sucks” to lose, how painful it can be, and how hard it is to force yourself to learn from failure, then emphasized how essential it is to do so.

High performance athletes are the masters of courageously looking failure in the face and using it as fuel.

When my kids learned how to play hockey, one of the first skills they learned was how to fall. They spent a portion of their practices diving headlong onto that cold, hard surface, and then jumping back onto their skates as fast as they could. Due to this repeated lesson they are less afraid to enter the play, more willing to fight for the puck – to push themselves a little harder and try new moves. Because, really, what’s the worse that could happen? They might fall... and they're already well drilled on how to get up quickly.

The fear of failing – of falling, of trying something new, of diving headlong into something difficult, is what holds so many of us back.

Here's how we can start to practice failing well:

First, let’s get out of our comfort zone more often. As adults, we need to find ways to practice skills that push us beyond our status quo, so that we can master discomfort, as well as the art of making mistakes and recovering from them.

Second, we need to make time for reflection and analysis. When my Olympic synchronized swimming team choreographed our free-program we added in a lift that had never been attempted before. It was technically tricky, extremely heavy, hard to balance, and placed at a late point in the routine when our energy reserves were nearly empty. The lift failed seventy percent of the time leading up to the 2000 Games, but each time it fell, we allowed for a short moment to grunt in frustration, then calmly analyze what went wrong, and develop a new strategy for the next attempt. Every time it worked, we stopped to discuss what we had done well and how we could encapsulate that success. We systematically faced failure that way, until the percentage of failure steadily decreased. When we performed our program at the Games, that lift was a massive success – a favorite with the crowd and the judges.

If we are serious about reaching our potential in any discipline or field, we need to make space to practice failing well, remembering all the while that the fall itself doesn’t matter as much as whether or not we get up.