Athletes who learn how to accept failure will succeed more


As the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are recently behind us, we are left with memories of witnessing the joys of victory and the agonies of defeat. Perhaps we imagined how we would have felt winning a gold medal. Perhaps we imagined how we would have felt if we had trained so hard and then lost.

Exploring the world of competitive athletes can actually provide remarkable insight into our own humanity. How do perfectionism, motivation and coping with failure affect performance? The answer appears to hold an important lesson for us all.

The psychology of sports

John G.H. Dunn, Ph.D., is a professor of physical education and recreation at the University of Alberta. As a sports psychology researcher, Dr. Dunn has found through years of research and experience that athletes who feel that failure is not an option are doomed to fail.

In a recent interview, he explained, “There are essentially two types of perfectionist — one strives for perfection and the other demands it. When one strives for perfection, and can accept that mistakes are part of the process, failure can be quite motivating. On the other hand, we know that perfection is almost unattainable; therefore, a lot of bad things can come from demanding it.”

Some such bad things that come from demanding self-perfection seem to come from how one responds to failure. Such perfectionists experience negative emotions that result in maladaptive behavior, such as rumination, pessimism and anger. Negative behavior then leads to negative consequences.

In addition, such perfectionists are never happy because no amount of success is ever good enough for them. Dr. Dunn attributes this type of thinking and behavior to demanding parents who made their expression of love conditional upon their children’s success. Based on his research, he encourages coaches to teach their athletes self-compassion.

Dr. Dunn’s research suggests that self-compassion does not promote laziness or complacency, but rather personal responsibility and initiative. He added, “When people are not afraid of the harsh criticism that can come with a mistake, they are more likely to see the situation clearly, and their perception of the situation is actually more accurate. They don’t ignore a mistake or dwell on it; they decide what needs to be done and move forward with a better focus.”

In other words, self-compassion comes from teaching oneself that no experience is a failure unless there is a failure to learn.

The sport of recovery

Athletes are only human, just like everyone else. Dr. Dunn’s research can easily be applied to anyone experiencing the trials and tribulations life inevitably brings. Those recovering from addiction, eating disorders and depression can view their perceived “failures” instead as normal life experiences and invaluable lessons — springboards to becoming better than ever.

The following is a five-step process for turning mistakes into success:

  1. Put criticism into perspective.

Remember the saying, “We are our own worst critics.” Learning self-compassion can help one avoid “beating oneself up.” In the meantime, nothing anyone else has to say can be worse than self-criticism, so there is no need to get stuck in fear over what others will say or do about past mistakes. Getting stuck in fear will prevent growth and learning from the experience.

  1. Avoid the negative thought trap.

Allowing oneself to worry excessively about mistakes can lead to the negative thought trap that is maladaptive. Getting stuck in pessimism and dejection will also prevent growth and learning. Rather, avoid negative thoughts using positive distractions.

  1. Accept responsibility.

Accepting responsibility for things that go wrong is not easy for the human psyche. The human psyche is extremely fragile, so blaming others is a built-in ego defense mechanism. However, accepting responsibility is an important part of the learning process. Sometimes, it merely involves acknowledging what happened and recognizing one’s own role in it. Whether others played a role as well is irrelevant because that is their business.

  1. Decide what needs to be done.

A very empowering part of learning from mistakes is deciding what needs to be done. The unique insight gained from the experience results in new expertise and knowledge. Using this knowledge to make good decisions is extremely empowering.

  1. Move forward with a more insightful focus.

Moving forward with a better understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses helps improve decision-making. Keeping the weaknesses in mind helps prevent a repeat of the same mistakes again.

Some say “recovery is a journey,” but sometimes it may seem more like a marathon. Nevertheless, when we grow and learn from mistakes, we may come to see them not as failures, but as gifts.

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About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. 

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