Not to start off on a total bombshell, but this may be the topic considered most important to athletes, teams, and coaches at almost every level and type of sport in existence. Although commonly discussed as two distinct entities, it is useful to think of success and failure as different sides of the same coin. The Outcome Coin if we’re going to be specific. (Not the Process Coin, which, IMO, is an awfully important coin, too.)
If we are going to be really honest about it, assessing the number of hours spent agonizing over past events or imagining what will happen next, I’d say that the sport and sport psych crowd are much more focused on failure (mostly avoiding it of course) than we are success. Perhaps it is human tendency to zero in on the experiences deemed to be unpleasant; they simply tend to take up more of our mental and emotional space. If 20 things happen in a given hour and 19 of them are neutral to “positive” most people are going to find themselves thinking about the one that felt negative. A lengthy dissertation on the reasons/guesses/suggestions on why this is is beyond the scope of this ‘lil blog, but most of us would agree that if we feel adverse to something, we discover that it follows us around incessantly. More persistent than a golden retriever who wants to play fetch after rolling in something that died last month.
Most athletes have a pretty predictable response to a perceived failure: THEY HATE IT.
Just anticipating the likelihood of failure can cause some of the most deplorable behavior to occur. Think: last two minutes of a football game when there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that a turnaround could happen. Frustration. Throwing equipment. Altercations with opponents. Plenty of colorful language. Sometimes you can actually witness as people descend into the abyss of Giving Up and This Sucks.
Which is sorta funny when you really think about it. I often remind my athletes that failure and loss are “the nature of the beast.” If you intend on pursuing increasingly difficult and more competitive realms of sport, it is not reasonable to expect that you will always succeed. Cognitive reality: Duh. We all know this. Emotional reality? No thank you, I’d like another helping of success, please.
*SIDE NOTE* I often talk with athletes about the importance of separating their emotional and cognitive realities. Respecting that these are two different but equally important ways of knowing the world. Neither is right or wrong. But frequently the head and the heart give us conflicting messages. Learning how to exist with both emotional and cognitive realities is a key skill. More on that another time.
So why are we so adverse to experiencing something other than success – particularly when we completely understand that it is going to happen? Part of what seems to make failure so darn hard to work with is how closely we get wrapped up in it. When a person is experiencing a failure they are totally enveloped in the awfulness of the situation; a Snuggie of Suffering might be an apt metaphor. The realization that life is deviating from the “script” they had envisioned in their mind creates pain and distress. Athletes are highly motivated and Driven people; absolutely this drive results in the creation of expectations. Expectations, particularly when they are not met, are pretty powerful stuff.
So what is an athlete to do? Theoretically if you didn’t care, losing wouldn’t really bother you. Sorry *obvious alert,* but we can’t just rid you of the desire to do well. Expectations will grow. We also can’t guarantee that you will always perform at your best and that this best will always net you the first place finish at every competition. Finally, I don’t know how to (nor would I if I did) turn off the feelings that come up when a failure is imminent. Have you ever been able to successfully change the feelings that accompany a really impactful experience? Absurd and impossible. So I’d suggest we try something else entirely:
Instead of trying to change the experience, try relating to it in a different way.
Take a moment to carefully observe how you are reacting to the situation, what you are thinking and feeling. Notice how you are struggling with the situation. See the disappointment, anger, sadness, or disbelief that may exist. How are you running from these feelings? How do you notice or see your experience of aversion to these difficult emotions? Can you stay with the feelings for just a little while longer, breathing into them, without reacting to them? Can you recognize that beyond being uncomfortable, your feelings aren’t actually going to harm you in any measurable way? Crappy choices you make in response to unpleasant feelings can certainly mess up your life (push an opponent? scream at a teammate?), but the feelings themselves don’t DO anything other than make you feel uncomfortable. Maybe very, very, very uncomfortable – but still.
Next, try paying attention to what you are thinking. At this point, it might be wise to call it a Hamster Wheel of Doom instead of your mind. It’s probably saying a lot while saying nothing really at all. Can you notice the thoughts without buying into them? Like watching late night infomercials without calling in to buy any of the products – just sit and observe.
“I can’t believe this is happening!” (hmm, that’s an interesting thought.)
“WHY!? I trained so hard!” (ah, yes. More thinking.)
“This is BULL! The ref/coach/competitor should have never ______.” (yes, little thought. I see you there.)
“This is awful. I am awful. This is so devastating.” (my thoughts and emotions – yes, coming together nicely).
And so on. The ticker-tape of thoughts is going to be running at full-speed. “Now Renee,” you may be saying. “This sounds nice/confusing/completely unattainable. How in the heck is this realistically supposed to happen?” Glad you asked.
Practice being aware of your thoughts and emotions and your reactions to pleasant/unpleasant situations long before you enter a highly-charged, intense experience. For most people, I find that regular meditation practice is incredibly helpful to this end. Meditation and overall improved mindfulness helps us to stand in the midst of whatever experience we are having without making choices that could make the situation worse and without reacting to the experience in way that increases our suffering. We can better appreciate our reactions to situations, noticing how our attention is sucked away from the experience itself when high emotion presides.
Phil Jackson and Pete Carroll can’t seem to stop talking about meditation these days. And a brief Googling will net you plenty of other supporting evidence. And for good reason – athletes stand to benefit immensely from improved mental awareness.
If Pete and Phil aren’t all that inspiring, maybe you can appreciate the reflections of a mom watching her newly minted toddler taking on all of the glory and anguish that is learning how to walk. Children, especially the very young, are often wonderful models for mindfulness and the natural tendency for growth if we can stop freaking out about “what just happened?!?” long enough to just try again. Baby Man toddles around, he crashes into something – or nothing – and falls down. Sometimes this results in tears; a little over a week ago it resulted in his first stitch. But I have yet to catch him increasing his suffering after a fall, wondering “why me? why did I have to fall today of all days?” or ruminating for too long on how upset he is. Lucky for him, he’s not yet able to engage in this kind of mental Hamster Wheeling.
Meditation won’t make failure fun. I do not recommend mindfulness practice in hopes of making you feel better/calmer/whatever. But being more mindful can help you interact with your life in a different way. Maybe even help you get back a little piece of your lost toddler wisdom if you’re lucky.
And this is important because (Truthy Moment): if you are going to be an athlete, you are going to need to figure out how to cope with and work with feeling like you have failed. And while failure is a GREAT teacher (more on that later, too), we can usually only appreciate this learning when we get a little distance from the moment when everything falls apart.
And maybe one of my favorite talks EVAR on the topic of failure. Just in case. Because this post isn’t quite long enough. And thus far lacks a reference to Harry Potter. Did you know JK Rowling gives great commencement speeches? Now you do.