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The Greatest Lesson of Competition

"I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
- Michael Jordan

Sport and competition have a way of teaching lessons that are not only valuable in athletics, but often times crossover into life as well. Those that compete do so with simple objectives: to improve and to succeed. Who doesn’t love trophies, awards, and acknowledgements? The pursuit and achievement of a goal is a tremendous feeling. However, while success has its perks, there is something truly special that can come from failure.

But there is an interesting dynamic that is occurring nowadays when it comes to failure. Somewhere along the way, failure developed negative connotations. Many seem to want to shelter themselves or their children from failure, as if failure should be avoid. Failure cannot be associated with one’s name, right?

One can only speculate as to where this mindset has grown from, but it is pervasive in our culture. I came across an interesting discussion on this very topic while listening to the Dan Patrick Radio Show last week. The discussion centered on Kobe Bryant setting the NBA record for most missed field goals and the notion that somehow this record is a blemish on his career. You could see the point, I mean who wants a record like that? However, as Dan Patrick pointed out, you have to be a pretty great player to miss that many shots. To make his point, he went on to list the names of quarterbacks who have thrown the most interceptions in NFL history. The list included some of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, including names like Farve, Tarkenton, Elway, Manning, Unitas, Namath, and Bradshaw. Despite the amount of interceptions, these are championship caliber players, many of them current or future Hall of Famers.

The message was clear, even the great athletes endure their fair share of failure.

But what makes them so great despite how often they seemed to ‘fail’? What allows them to rebound from failure, daring to take the same risks?

There are some that respond to failure by going into a shell. They can’t cope with failure and allow it to get the best of them, while others embrace failure. They understand why they failed; they accept responsibility, take action and work toward improving. They don’t cower in the face of failure; rather they use it as a driving force to fuel improvement. They learn from their mistakes and work on their weaknesses. They continually take risks, not afraid of failure.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has a terrific speech on the “6 Rules of Success”. In this speech, he identifies his third rule as “Don’t be Afraid to Fail”. Here are his words:
“Anything I’ve attempted in life, I was always willing to fail. You can’t always win, but don’t be afraid of making decisions. You can’t be paralyzed by fear of failure or you will never push yourself. You keep pushing because you believe in yourself and in your vision and you know it is the right thing to do and success will come. So don’t be afraid to fail.”
This is well stated and everybody could benefit from reading these words. Like many who have participated in competition, I learned this lesson over and over again. However, nothing more clearly demonstrated the concept of pushing yourself and not being afraid of failure than when I was playing college hockey. My sophomore year at Ohio University, we were the hosts of the ACHA DI National Championship Tournament. Playing in front of our home crowd, our fans, we lost the National Championship game to Penn State 5-0. Penn State dominated us in every aspect of the game. It was the most disappointing sporting failure I had every experienced.

However, something came from the failure that was unlike anything else we had experienced before as a team and as individuals. By the time my junior year rolled around, the group of guys who returned had a drive and a determination to get back what we failed to accomplish the previous year. There was a hunger and a desire born that could only come from that type of failure. We acknowledged our weaknesses and short comings, determined to make them strengths. This mindset fueled our work ethic all the way from training camp through the regular season and into tournament play as we went unbeaten in our final 24 games, setting the stage for a rematch against Penn State in the National Championship game. Again, we fell behind early in that game. We could have cowered, fearful we would experience another lose to arguably a more talented Penn State team. But, that was not the case. Despite the early deficit, we battled back to win 5-4. That moment was the greatest sporting memory I have. Nothing felt better than realizing you were National Champions, thanks in large part to the taste of failure and the lessons learned from defeat.

That became a powerful illustration of what one can accomplish from failure. To me, this is why the greatest lesson one can earn from competing is experiencing failure and defeat. Failure not only builds character, it reveals character. Failure develops a quality of mental toughness and resilience that success will not. I forces you to be honest with yourself about your efforts and about the many areas in need of improvement. I feel these traits are tremendously valuable in sport and life. As a coach of young athletes, you realize that developing these qualities is a valuable part of the coaching process. We want our athletes and clients to embrace failure when it occurs. We want to educate them on why they may have fallen short of their goal, involve them in the corrective process, and allow this to bring about the drive needed to pursue and accomplish their goals.

There is nothing better than seeing one who takes ownership of their outcomes, who isn’t afraid to take risks or fail, and endures despite previous defeat.

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Friday, March 01, 2024

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