Resilience – the key to dealing with failure

If there is one certainty in sport, it’s that everyone, no matter how good they are, will at some time fail and face disappointment. The important question is then, how do you develop the resilience to persevere and succeed?

As Michael Jordan famously said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The key is to develop ‘tempered optimism’ that will enable you to be resilient in the face of disappointment. Here are three ways that you can bounce back:

Take enough responsibility

Failure always hurts, and the emotional pain can stop you thinking rationally after a bad performance. There are two traps to avoid. The first is taking too much responsibility for the result: “I’m hopeless, I messed up, this is typical of me, I’m no good” and so on. Beating up on yourself like this won’t help you bounce back. The second trap is to take too little responsibility, acting like ‘teflon’ where nothing sticks: “It was the wind, it was my coach’s fault, I got a bad call from a referee, I was just unlucky….”.   Resilient competitors are ruthlessly honest with themselves about the aspects of their performance that are within their control. They are very clear about the things they can influence, and what they can’t. So they won’t blame uncontrollable factors like the  weather  – but they will examine how well prepared they were for bad weather and their tactics for dealing with it. Taking enough responsibility means that you will learn from a poor performance and be better equipped for your next event.

Take the long view

When you’re feeling down it’s easy to let a poor performance cast a long shadow into the future. This leads to feeling helpless and losing motivation, because it seems like there’s no hope of change. Instead, optimistic competitors know that ‘tomorrow is another day’. They focus their energy on training for the next race, rather than wallow in self-pity for the one that’s just finished. So once you’ve reflected and learned from a poor race, leave it behind and look ahead.

Keep the effects constrained

No matter how important sport is to you, it’s only one part of your life. Don’t let a bad result blind you to the other things in your life that are going well. The ‘little things’ in life like health, friends, family, mountains and sunsets are easy to take for granted at the best of times, and even more easily forgotten in the midst of disappointment.   So make sure you acknowledge and appreciate the good people, activities and events in the rest of your life. Put sport – and a poor result – in perspective!

The real and lasting benefit from competition isn’t found in the medals or result lists. It comes from what we learn about ourselves, and how we apply these lessons through life. Failure is a more powerful teacher than success – but I hope you get to learn from both!

Jonathan Males, executive coach and sport psychologist More about Jonathan here