I remember every detail of the first time I ever really failed. I was 15. It was the Ohio High School State Swimming Championship and I was seeded first in the state in the 50 freestyle as a sophomore. By a lot. At one point during that season, I had the fastest high school split in the country. It was in the bank and practically a sure thing. I would win and earn my first state title as well as have a concrete shot at breaking the state record. What was supposed to be one of the best performances of my life (and debatably the smoothest sailing big-time-win) turned from excitement to complete despair. I lost the race by three one hundredths of a second and she and I both broke the state record. A fingernail would have made a difference. To this day I still think about that race and that minuscule amount of time causing my first real heartbreak. In the blink of an eye, I had the biggest failure of my life. For a year, I beat myself up over those three one hundredths. Little did I know, I was learning one of the best lessons any athlete, performer, or accomplished human being needs to learn.
Dealing with major mistakes, failures, and losses can be one of the toughest and most challenging things we face. How do you deal with them? What do you do after you completely bomb a game? How do you handle it during the game when you realize you are bombing and there is still much left to play? How do you bounce back? Well, it is all about how you look at it and what you take away from it happening. Randy Pausch, the well-known professor from Carnegie Mellon University and author of one of my favorite books The Last Lecture, said that brick walls are made purposefully to let us prove how badly we want something. To make sure we are willing to work hard enough to figure out how to get through them. An athlete’s ability to understand their own personal motivations to succeed will help them find the effort to push through. I have found through my own experiences and watching and listening to athletes’ experiences that during or after failure, you will more than likely find yourself blessed with a second chance or recover in an undeniably satisfying way. Positive outcomes stemming from negative events is not a new phenomenon.
As a parent, what do you do to help your child work through their failure(s)? The first thing we need to talk about is strength. Mental toughness is created by the same way we build physical muscle. We build our muscles by breaking them down and creating tears in their fibers where new fibers can form creating an increase in thickness and quantity. Mental toughness relates to your ability to handle adversity, to perform when the pressure is on. Tough times make us stronger in the long run. Research has found that people who have endured adversity over the course of their lifetime had a greater sense of well-being and were also better off than those who never experienced trauma, defeat, or an important negative life event.
Mental toughness does not develop from fear. Mentally tough athletes do not flinch when faced with adversity in the heat of competition. They live and feed off being the anchor of the last relay that has to win for the team to win the meet. They look forward to coming up with the bases loaded and their team down by three runs in the bottom of the ninth. They want to have the ball in their hands with five seconds left and their team down by two.
Mentally tough athletes aren’t born. Anyone can learn to develop mental strengths through experience. Failures are inevitable in athletic competition. Failures are inevitable in life. Failure is quite possibly one of the few things you can count on. They are not situations to be afraid of, but rather situations that can make us stronger and in turn, more successful. By understanding this, you should be hungry to step up and accept a challenge. If you fail, it will only be a lesson. It will not kill you. Just imagine the possibilities if you consistently wanted to take on challenges to see if you can beat them, rather than have them beat you.
It is a choice. It is an attitude; a mindset. It is one’s ability to understand their own personal motivations to succeed. It is the way competitive athletes should act and think. Athletes are tough. Have you ever heard of anyone performing extraordinarily well consistently and being mentally weak?
So, what can you say to your athlete after they’ve been through a heartbreaking loss? What advice can you share that will help build their mental muscle, allowing them to bounce back when their sport or the world inevitably throws them a curve ball and flips their life upside down?
Anytime I work with an athlete who is living through what they would describe as a worst-case scenario or an utter failure, I remind them of how great it is they are experiencing it now. Living with it now. When failure occurs, it means they went after something with everything they had. They wanted something they never had before. They worked hard for it. First of all, remind them that they haven’t lost anything. They had not been there before and it still exists as something to work hard for. Secondly, how lucky are they that they even had a goal or dream to go after? If they are never messing up, they are not doing anything. They are not even trying. Better it did happen and better it happened now so we can learn from it. It is a forced reassessment. There was something they must have needed to learn or experience in order to achieve it. There must be something else that was needed, something to be gained and earned, that had not yet. The quicker they can get through these failures, the faster they can bounce back and attack again; better, stronger, smarter, faster.
Remind your athlete that they must still learn to believe in yourself. It doesn’t hurt to remind them that you still believe in them. They have to have faith that things are as they should be and that they will get better. Depending on the degree of failure they have experienced, they may even feel like they are at a rock bottom low. Good news with that frame of mind is that they can only go up. Keeping belief, especially in yourself, can be the hardest after failure. Usually confidence and self-efficacy, for whatever task they botched, are low. The best way to gain confidence is to think of previous times they did succeed, the times they nailed a performance, the times they pulled it out. Remind them of those. Have them focus consistently on those great memories, every detail. Focus on how they felt before, during, and after. The more they can practice the way they felt before those great performances the more likely they will be able to set up for great success again, just like in the past.
Your athlete needs to continue to focus on what they can control. This cuts out a lot that they are more than likely using to beat themselves up with. They can only control how they feel, how they’ve fueled their body, how much sleep they have had, their practicing and training beforehand, and having a game/race plan. The major thing, pretty much the only thing, they can control is themselves. Focus on making themselves better. Remind them to take any pieces of advice that failure has given them and add it as knowledge. Alter their plan of action and structure the next attack with the new information in mind. Adjust and adapt as needed.
As they adjust and adapt, your athlete must also prepare for the uncontrollable. All those things that have gone wrong or could go wrong: what other people could say or do, the weather, the audience, the opponent, equipment complications. It is never known in advance when an athlete may encounter some technical difficulties. They must expect the unexpected. Coaches and teammates have a high impact when they say something right before an athlete is about to step up on the blocks. If it is something that adds pressure or gets in their head (even if not the intention), they are bound to tense up and have a not-so-great performance. Help teach them how to adapt, readjust, and react positively to whatever anyone does or says. This idea can also roll over to intimidation tactics used by opponents or fans. If they are already prepared for other people to get in their face, when they do, it can be pretty comical. They can be in absolute control of their thoughts and emotions. They then can use these incidences to their advantage, adding fuel to their fire, because they have already prepared for them.
The last thing you can do for your athlete struggling to bounce back after a mistake or failure, is help them find and use all resources available. For example, I have never understood Division I student-athletes who do not use everything available to them. Why not see the sport psychologist? The nutritionist? Why not hit up the training room for an ice bath, a rub down, or an active stretch by a trainer? Why not see a tutor if you have a hard time writing papers or in math class? If it is there, USE IT! Not everyone has access to what collegiate athletes do, but so many do not realize what resources they do have and how they could be beneficial. If your athlete is bouncing back from an injury, help them take advantage of physical therapists, athletic trainers, and chiropractors. If your athlete is afraid of high pressure situations, try to setup mock high pressure situations to help them combat their fear. Not everything costs money and there are so many resources throughout communities and schools that are already there for you and your athlete. A lot of people use so many excuses when they have gone through a failure or made a mistake. Getting better seems hopeless and just too much work. Well, it is work. And it takes effort, and time, and energy. It might even take research. Show them that. Being great does not just happen, it takes commitment. No matter who you are or what price point you can afford, there are resources available to you that can be taken advantage of. If your athlete is having a hard time helping themselves, show them where they can get additional support.
The only way to achieve success is to understand failure. Muhammad Ali said it best, “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.”
Abbigail Tuohy MS, BCC
ABSolute Coaching, LLC