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How Failure Can Unlock Performance

Maddie had just failed. She walked on the start line ranked third in the 10k, attempting to go from barely making the team as a walk-on to securing a medal at the conference championship. The race started out well, but a little past halfway, she saw her hopes slipping away. She faded to thirteenth place, minutes slower than she’d run a few weeks prior. Devastated and distraught, she couldn’t make sense of it. It was her senior year, and she’d worked her way up from a walk-on to someone the team was relying on to score.

The next day, she came back in the 5k, an event she was ranked eleventh in prior to the championships. At halfway point she was in twelfth place, 40 meters behind the pack, but suddenly she flipped the switch and started working through the field. She went on to finish third, clinching the team’s conference championship the day after having the most disappointing performance in her career.

In my athletic coaching career, this story occurred with such frequency that I started referring it as the failure bounce back. We’d go to a championship or big multi-day meet and the first performance was a mess. But then, somehow, the athlete would pull off something unexpected and great the next day.

How’d they do it? It seemed to follow a three-step cycle:

1. Anger and Disappointment

A wave of negative emotions was the first response. They were upset, disappointed, frustrated. They felt the deluge of negative feelings. They didn’t hide their disappointment. It was real. This would last minutes to hours, but the key was, at some point, they moved on.

2. Acceptance

At some point, they transitioned to acceptance. They stopped wallowing, they stopped thinking about the performance and what happened. They ceased trying to make sense of it and just accepted it happened. They moved on. Maybe not entirely, but there was a conscious shift of attention to the next task.

3. Letting Go

The final step was when the weight lifted off their shoulders. The anxiety, pressure, and fear that often riddled their first performance gave way to a kind of attitude that said: “I already sucked. It can’t get any worse. I might as well see what’s there.” The expectations had dissipated. No one expected them to do anything. In a strange way, this freed them up to perform at their best. They were able to let go and just see what was in the tank. If they blew up or failed again, no one would care.

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Often, we get in our own way. We let the expectations, fear, and anxiety overpower us, preventing us from achieving what we’re capable of. If we let it, failure can provide an opportunity to free us from our expectations. In my experience, this only occurs if we can move on from the wallowing or despair phase and get to acceptance. If we let the failure linger or sting for too long, it’s as if we internalize that this is who I am: the person who can’t perform on the big day. If we accept it as a part of the human experience, we can put ourselves in a position to be able to let go of the expectations that so often hold us back.

We don’t have to experience failure to have this revelation. What failure does is shifts our motivation and attention to the internal, instead of external. That second go-round, we drop the story of performing in front of and for others, for a rank. We just focus on what we know how to do, seeing what we are capable of.

–Steve

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