England football team’s close defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final last Sunday serves as a reminder that, as painful as it is to experience failure (if losing in the final of a major tournament can be described as failure), it happens to all sportspeople. Mistakes and errors in judgement are an inevitable part of playing sport, and ultimately our failures are what help us to learn and grow.
Athletes typically have high expectations when it comes to their performance, and when those expectations aren’t met it can feel devastating. We’ve all heard the saying ‘we learn from our mistakes’ and it’s true, especially when it comes to sport. The best athletes are those who are able to persevere through their failures and most importantly, learn from them.
Why do athletes fear failure?
Psychologists have identified that it’s not always failure itself that athletes fear, but the perceived negative consequences that may follow. These can include shame and embarrassment, the feeling of letting down their fans and teammates or an uncertainty about their future career prospects.
For athletes to embrace failure and use it to their advantage, they must learn to fail in a safe environment which allows them to make errors without judgement. This can be difficult for athletes competing on the world stage, especially when the public response can be unsympathetic. This is where having the right coaches, manager and support network can be vital.
Watching England manager, Gareth Southgate, hug and support his players after losing their penalty shoot out in the Euro 2020 final is a great example. For the players to know their ‘failure’ is not met with judgement or shame means they can look forward confidently and come back stronger for the next football World Cup.
A change of perspective
Getting hung up on mistakes can actually hinder progress and improvement – a perfectionist mind-set can make athletes afraid to take risks, resulting in more cautious (and usually worse) performance. Some of the greatest sporting moments of all time came about because the athletes felt confident enough to take a risk. To refer back to the old but gold cliché, no one ever achieved greatness by playing it safe!
It’s comforting to know even the top professional athletes experience failure. It shows a human side to them and even makes us warm to their character. Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, didn’t make the cut when he tried out for his high school basketball team. Jordan’s setback motivated him to work even harder – if he’d let that failure defeat him, he wouldn’t be where he is today. Jordan says himself that failure is key to his success:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six 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.”
Failure is something to be embraced, not feared
Failure is something that must be accepted and embraced before athletes are able to reach their full potential. Viewing failure in a positive light can be difficult to do in the moment, but learning from our mistakes and not letting them defeat us will build mental resilience and ultimately lead to success.