Toolbox: Putting Failure in its Place
Failure: Are you defining and managing it effectively, or is it defining you? Wrestling successfully with the interpretation, role, and consequences of failure are common challenges for the mentally fit athlete. Consciously working with your experience of failure – rather than defaulting to one that is too habitual and narrow – can dramatically enrich your riding and your results.
By Marvin Zauderer
In last month’s Sport Psychology column, published during the Tour of California, we looked at More Minds of Mentally Fit Pros: what it takes, mentally, to succeed in a stage race. Just as in last year’s Tour of California column, we looked at how we mere mortals can learn and apply the pros’ mental skills in our own experiences on the bike.
Did you notice this quote from Tom Zirbel of Bissell Pro Cycling in last month’s column?
“The worst rejection is when you try your hardest and fail. Mentally, it’s easier to give in and fail. After feeling failure, it can be easy to say, ‘I don’t want to feel that again, I’m going to beat it to the punch.’”
That’s Tom’s view. What’s yours? How do you define failure as an athlete? What meaning do you make of it when it happens? What impact does it have on you?
Whether it’s attached to a race, a group ride, a century, a tough interval, or that hill you’ve been trying to conquer, your experiences and relationship with failure can affect you before, during, and after your ride. Have you put failure in its place? Let’s take a closer look.
How much does it hurt, and why?
In the movie The Princess Bride, the master swordsman Inigo Montoya duels with the mysterious Man in Black, who quickly puts Inigo in the shockingly unfamiliar position of second best. There is a pause in the duel.
Inigo (in awe): Who are you?
Man in Black: No one of consequence.
Inigo: I must know.
Man in Black: Get used to disappointment.
Inigo (nodding): Okay.
Disappointment. That’s a big part of failure, isn’t it? Most of us don’t handle disappointment as gracefully as Inigo. And some of the time, we shouldn’t: it hurts, and badly. However, a part of putting failure in its place, for you, may be increasing your tolerance for disappointment rather than giving it so much power over you. But how?
When you have a failure, how much does it hurt? How long do you feel it? What do you say to yourself about the failure, and about yourself? Do you treat yourself honestly yet compassionately, as an effective coach would – seeing where you need to improve and what you did well, what was within your control and what wasn’t? Or, like so many athletes, do you beat yourself up? How disappointment feels to you can help you discover how to reshape your relationship with failure. Clearly, not all failures are created equal. But over time, as you examine your experiences of failure, you’re likely to see patterns emerge. The key question: Given your personality, do you seem to have a proportionate, balanced reaction to falling short of a goal? Or is your reaction – your feelings, sensations, thoughts, behaviors – out of proportion to the importance of the goal? And if so, is the problem your reaction, the importance you placed on the goal, the goal itself, or all of the above?
Let’s look at an example of how your personality can inflate your experience of failure. From birth, your personality has been formed not only by your genetic/spiritual (let’s not get into that debate) inheritance and predisposition, but also by your experiences in life, particularly your experiences with people who have been very important to you. Strong voices tend to stay with us: if you’ve had an important relationship with a person who was sufficiently critical, relentlessly pushing you or pushing himself/herself, highly anxious/stressed, or all of those, you may have made that person’s inner voice your own. And if you have, your reactions to your failures are likely to be unduly harsh, or painful, or both.
If that’s happening, as I pointed out in the columns on Effective Self-Talk and Handling Pressure, you can work to override this “wiring,” these patterns of reactivity, that long ago set down roots in your brain. You can become a better coach for yourself. You can experience failures in a way that is influenced less by the past and more by what’s actually happening – and what you’re able to make happen – now. Increasing your tolerance for disappointment may ultimately be quite a bit like increasing your tolerance for suffering on the bike: relaxing into it rather than bracing so hard against it.
But managing the experience more effectively may only be part of the solution. What if you could make failure hurt less in the first place? (And without using any legal or illegal drugs.)
Taking some of the “sting” out of failure
There are many ways to set the stage for a more balanced experience of failure. It’s not about skirting the true pain of the experience, it’s about cleaning it up: shaving off the “edge” that you’re adding to the pain. That edge creates unnecessary suffering, and as all of us cyclists know, unnecessary suffering is the last thing we need. Here are some things you can do to give yourself a cleaner experience of failure:
1. Set the right goals for your cycling, and give those goals the right place in your life – and your heart. Effective goal-setting and goal-management, critically important skills for the mentally fit athlete, can lessen the pain of failure. For example, if you set the bar way too high for yourself, falling short may hurt far worse than necessary; you might have saved yourself some suffering by setting the right goal, even if you still fell short. Also, failure may hurt more than necessary if you have too much riding (no pun intended) on your goals. For example, if how you feel about yourself is too tied up in your performance, failing may feel like you are a failure. But you are much more than the outcome of your race or ride, and you may need to remind yourself of that. If you take falling short too personally, it’s going to sting more than it needs to.
2. If you’re setting the bar too high in your riding, or have too much at stake, you owe it to yourself to ask: Why? In my experience working with amateur and professional athletes, one quality has consistently stood out: drive. It’s the drive to improve, to persevere, to overcome adversity, to succeed. The eminent psychologist Carl Rogers believed that each of us has an innate drive to reach our potential, and nowhere is that more evident than in the world of sport. But there is an old Buddhist saying: “Our greatest strength is our greatest weakness.” Drive can have a dark side: perfectionism.
There are many views and theories of personality, and many tests that attempt to categorize, label, or otherwise explain it. I’m basically egalitarian (Unitarian? utilitarian?) about such things: whatever’s useful, I’ll use it. One such approach is the Enneagram, a system that describes nine personality types. In their book, The Essential Enneagram, Dr. David Daniels of Stanford Medical School and Dr. Virginia Price describe perfectionism as a coping strategy. In their interpretation, being driven by – and meeting – high internal standards is a way to cope with a long-held belief that “people are not accepted for who they are…. good behavior is expected and taken for granted… and bad behavior is judged negatively and punished.” As you may know, that’s the “inner critic”: an echo of those strong voices I mentioned earlier. The ultimate goal of personal development for the perfectionist, in Daniels’ and Price’s view? “To realize that we are all perfect as we are (complete and whole), that our worth and well-being are inherent and not dependent on our being right or wrong.” Or being the fastest, or strongest, or even….fast and strong enough.
3. Strive to let go of self-consciousness. Again, I’m not talking drug-aided here. (Let go of self-consciousness, not consciousness.) And, paradoxically, if we’re striving too hard to let go, that may be part of the problem. For many of us, it can be a lifelong struggle.
As noted by Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi in their terrific book, Flow in Sports, letting go of self-consciousness can include such things as:
• Letting go of how others see you. You are who you are, and even though you have work to do on yourself, you’re good – regardless of others’ opinions. That doesn’t mean ignoring family, friends, teammates, and others whose views can impact your riding. It means extracting what’s true, useful, and important from what they’re saying, taking it to heart, and not letting it – or the rest – weaken your spirit.
• Letting go of worrying whether you have what it takes. Just focus on bringing everything you’ve learned, every capability you’ve trained, everything you are to your riding, and be solid and confident about all of it. After all, what’s in you is all you have on the bike. Don’t let worry distract you from that. You’ll deal with the outcome when it happens.
• Being consumed as much as possible by your moment-to-moment experience, and thus being less self-involved. Make your experience be you – be “in the flow” – rather than making it be about you. But beware: your ego is going to find it scary when you try to push it out of the driver’s seat. So relax. Relax into the experience, rather than clinging to whatever you cling to – pride, beating yourself up, worrying – all things that take you away from what’s actually happening.
You’ll be more likely to relax and let go of self-consciousness if you feel solid. Add to your solidity (and keep your ego appeased) by controlling the things in your riding (eg., preparation, effort, skills) that are controllable. Draw solidity from being more connected to your body – use breathing techniques and other tools to integrate your body and mind. And off the bike, choose from many practices – meditation, spirituality, religion, psychology, intimacy, parenting, and others – that have a long history of helping us human beings to hold less tightly to self-consciousness.
4. Define and see failure clearly. It’s important that you define failure carefully, and not default to an “automatic” definition. Sometimes, success and failure are black and white: you reach your goal or you don’t. But sometimes there are shades of gray – degrees of success and failure. So when you’re on the bike and you don’t reach your goal, see the whole experience. Consider anything else you accomplished, anything else you felt, anything else you improved. Instead of seeing an experience only as failure, you might be aware that you also finished, felt strong, felt stronger than you ever have, stayed with the group longer, took some corners much better than usual, learned more about your strengths and limiters, or were grateful that you could be out riding when others couldn’t. And sometimes, you may not need to define falling short of your goal as failure. Perhaps true failure, for you, is simply not giving it everything you’ve got.
Be careful; this is not about “spinning” failure to yourself so you don’t have to feel bad. It’s about seeing the whole experience clearly and telling yourself the (whole) truth.
5. Fail forward. Let’s bring our exploration of failure full circle. What is the role, the usefulness, the power of failure to help you reach your potential? Failure can be more than the disappointment of falling short. If you can tolerate the disappointment, and ultimately relax into any experience of failure, you can let in failure’s gifts. Failure can:
• Help you increase your tolerance for discomfort – from the disappointment, from friends’/teammates’ criticism, and so on – and to build resiliency in the face of adversity.
• Give you practice reducing/eliminating negative self-talk and thus becoming a better coach for yourself.
• Give you practice seeing your experience accurately and completely rather than being dominated by one aspect of it.
• Help you see what you need to work on, and increase your motivation to do so.
• Give you a dose of humility, if you need it.
• Put you in a position to ask for help, and, if need be, to become more comfortable with asking.
• Give you practice overcoming your fear of failure, by pushing you to work with the actual consequences of failure rather than how you imagine the consequences will be.
• Inspire you to question the attunement of your goals and expectations with your current capabilities and potential, and if there’s a misalignment, to dig for the reasons.
• Help you identify the role that your successes, failures, striving, and driving play in your self-concept, and whether or not you are defining yourself too much by what you do (or fail to do) and not enough by who you are.
• Create an opportunity for you to redeem yourself. (Inigo Montoya is all about that.)
In having the right goals, understanding yourself well, letting go of self-consciousness, defining failure carefully, and using failure to grow as an athlete, you put yourself in a more solid, confident place. And then, you can respond to failure, consciously, rather than reacting to it, impulsively and disproportionately. You can make failure into threshold training, where the limit you’re expanding will help you not only the bike, but off the bike as well.
Ultimately the greatest gift we have while we’re on this earth is that we can experience all the richness of life – exhilaration, connection, growth, disappointment, loss – and, if we can clear the obstacles our minds put in our way, we can experience life so much more deeply. Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi put it well:
“Whether you are a rank amateur or a world champion, the ultimate measure of success is not your performance stats but what you were able to feel while performing.”
Rather than letting fear, anxiety, and the ego’s defensiveness have power over us, we can all have what Carl Rogers called “the courage to be.” Then failure is not just disappointment; it is much, much more.
Marvin Zauderer, in his sport psychology practice, coaches athletes from all sports on the mental skills needed for success. He works in person and by phone, and frequently speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marvin leads the Mental Training program at Whole Athlete, a performance center in Marin County, California that provides a comprehensive set of coaching, testing, fitting, and consulting services to amateur and professional athletes. He is a licensed psychotherapist, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. Having had a 20-year career in high-technology R&D, sales & marketing, and management, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. Marvin welcomes email at [email protected]. His website is www.marvinz.com.