Don’t teach young athletes to win every race, teach them to win the battle in their head that’s telling them to give up.

Is finishing fourth at an Olympic Games a failure? When this happened to me in 2012, I certainly thought so. I hadn’t been seeded to finish on the podium at the Games, hadn’t been ranked to bring home a medal, but I went into the competition with the belief that I could. At that point, my definition of success and failure was pretty black and white: if you achieve your goal then you’ve succeeded; if you don’t achieve your goal then you’ve failed. So, when I hit that wall and saw fourth place on the scoreboard, the first thought that crossed my mind was, “I’ve let myself down”. I left the stadium in tears that evening, feeling a curious mix of anticlimactic emotions.

Fourth place is widely renowned amongst athletes as being the worst place to finish in a race. Some say they’d rather be last than fourth. I’m not sure I agree with that, but there is something agonising about a fourth-place finish—that sense of being so close, and yet the gap to the podium such an excruciatingly unbridgeable jump. In every sports competition, an athlete or team must finish fourth, within touching distance of central stage but, ultimately, going home empty-handed. For a long time after the 2012 Olympic Games, I struggled to reflect back on that race—experiencing a strange tangle of disappointment and shame. Only over the last couple of years have I been able to re-frame the experience and appreciate what an extraordinary achievement it was. This blog isn’t about coming fourth, but my experiences at those Games raised an interesting issue for me: I had to reconsider my perception of success and failure.

Sport is full of successes and failures. Races are defined by wins and losses, measured by records and personal bests, rewarded with medals and trophies. It’s easy to think of elite athletes as being superhuman, performing skills at a level that is barely comprehensible to most people, but the display of mastery at a competition is the end product of a long cycle of failing at a skill, and then trying again, many times, until it can be done to perfection under pressure. In fact, the majority of our training is just that—continually testing ourselves and coming up short, until we finally conquer a skill or tactic. There won’t be many (if any) training sessions where everything goes right first time, where there’s no criticism or feedback from the coach. What sets elite athletes apart isn’t their extraordinary ability to get tasks right first time; it’s their ability to embrace failure as crucial part of sporting development. Of course, we would all love to succeed at something the first time we do it but, in actual fact, succeeding first time isn’t realistic or particularly helpful. It feels great to accomplish a task, but it feels even better to accomplish a task that you’ve been struggling with for a while. And, most importantly, we learn more in the process if we’ve had to attempt it more than once.

Elite athletes know that disappointments are part and parcel of high-level competition but, for younger athletes, the inevitable setbacks that accompany competitive sport can be really hard to deal with. Goal-setting is a brilliant tool for young athletes (and their support team) to use, but with goal-setting comes the inevitable realisation that not all goals will be achieved—there will always be a team who comes fourth or who misses out on the final. There will always be an athlete who ends up just shy of the podium, one who doesn’t achieve a personal best, one who leaves the pool/track/court/pitch in tears. So how can parents and coaches help young athletes re-frame failure into something that can be embraced and seen as a positive part of the development process?

Realise that everyone has a choice in the way they view the world

Every single human being on this planet has challenges in their life. We often don’t know what other people are going through, and it’s not always easy to relate to other people’s problems, but everybody has challenges and obstacles, and most people have more than one. What I learnt from the London Olympics experience was that it’s up to us, as individuals, to choose how we view situations in our lives. I realised that for years after that fourth-place finish I was consciously choosing to focus on the negative, to reflect on what I’d missed out on, instead of what I had achieved in that race. I was making the decision to hold myself up against the three athletes who had beaten me, instead of recognising that I was the fourth fastest woman in the world at a home Olympic Games.

The realisation changed my narrative and my mindset, because I started to accept that I had to take responsibility for the way I interpreted results and situations. This notion transcends sport and is applicable to everything in life, from minor annoyances, to big life-changing events. We can squirm and sulk, throw tantrums about how the world isn’t fair and how we wish that our circumstances were happening to someone else. Or, we can accept that whatever is happening is happening and get on with it in the best way we can. You quite often see people who have been dealt terrible hands in life smiling, helping others, embracing living whilst they still have the opportunity. Everyone deals with things in different ways, but I think these people have come to an acceptance that obsessing about the negative in their situation will usually not change anything, and will, in fact, only make them feel worse.

Trivial as sporting events may seem in the greater scheme of things, it can still be emotional when things don’t go well (and I experienced my fair share of crying into a pair of goggles after disappointing races!) Athletes though, like everyone else, have a choice when reacting to events and results. Equipping young athletes with the skills needed to take responsibility for their reactions to their circumstances, both in and outside of sport, is such an important step in empowering them to take ownership of their journey through life.

Help young athletes understand that their sporting results aren’t a reflection of them as a person

This is a major one and links back to my blog about values (which you can read here). It’s so important for young athletes to understand that their results in sport do not make them a better or worse person, more or less loved, more or less likely to have friends. This seems so obvious when you think about sport in a dispassionate way—of course winning a swimming race doesn’t make you an inherently better person, of course your friends don’t just want to hang around with you just because you’re talented at badminton. But in the heat of the moment, or after a disappointing result, it can be really difficult to retain perspective, and not take the failure as a hit to self-worth. The first step to re-framing failure is to instil some values that make it very clear that outcome in sport is not a reflection on worth. These are statements that should be vocalised regularly, and I also found it really helpful to have a little ‘cheat sheet’ to take to competitions. Some important ones:

  • “The outcome of this competition does not define me as a person”.
  • “I don’t judge myself on sporting results. I judge myself on these values… (e.g. how I treat others, my attitude)”.
  • “Sporting success doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, and it doesn’t automatically make me a good person. The two things aren’t linked”.
  • “The people who matter to me love me unconditionally”.

Understand that there will never be a perfect race/match/game

The perfect competition just doesn’t exist. There will always be a better way to have paced a race, a skill that could have been executed more effectively, an interaction with a teammate that could have been more efficient. Aspiring for that perfect execution is to continually set yourself up for failure. Young athletes can prepare for competition by acknowledging that mistakes can and will happen, but if it’s a mistake that gives the athlete valuable feedback about their performance, then this is a positive, even if it resulted in that athlete losing the race, missing a qualification time or getting disqualified. Mistakes should be embraced, because they give us an opportunity to learn—it’s only a failure if we don’t learn anything. Again, young athletes can create a ‘cheat sheet’ here for competition, to help start changing the narrative around failure:

  • “The likelihood is that I will make mistakes in this competition. That’s ok. It isn’t my job to execute the perfect performance. My job is to do the best I can on the day”.
  • “Even if I make a mistake, lose the race, fail to get the qualification standard etc, then I will still be able to learn from my performance. No mistake is a negative if it can be learnt from”.
  • “I am not scared of making mistakes—even the best athletes in the world make them”.
  • “All I can ever do is commit to my plan and do my best”.

Remember, the only failure is quitting. Everything else is just gathering information!

Acknowledge the ‘Worst-Case’!

Even though it seems counter-intuitive, it can also be really helpful to actually acknowledge the worst-case scenario before going into competition. Conventional wisdom would tell us to only ever focus on the positive because then we’re more likely to influence a positive result, but in my experience, for athletes who experience pre-competition anxiety, just focusing endlessly on a positive result creates extra pressure, and isn’t particularly helpful. Human beings tend to be very good at catastrophising events (building up the perceived consequences of an outcome to be disproportionately momentous). We do it before interviews, we do it before public speaking events, and we definitely do it before sports competitions. This leads to a huge amount of stress and anxiety that is largely disproportional to the actual consequences. Basically, us humans are massive drama queens!

Joking aside, it’s normal for kids to do this, but it can cause undue nerves, so it can be good to run through some of the less desirable scenarios with them beforehand. Acknowledging these out loud with a young athlete can help dissipate some of the fear that surrounds the thought of failing. What happens if you don’t get a PB or win the race? Usually the answer to our ‘biggest fears’ is that it will feel a bit rubbish for a little while, and then we’ll get over it and get on with our life. When we realise that this fear of failure is almost entirely unfounded, we feel better prepared to face the competition, safe in the knowledge that whatever happens we can and will deal with the consequences.

Practise re-framing negative statements

Begin teaching your athlete to find positives out of negative situations. If it helps, make it into a challenge. Every time a negative statement is voiced, challenge them to come up with two or three positive things that they did well during the performance. Even if they can’t find anything positive (which is unlikely), they will be able to learn from whatever they didn’t execute well and will be better prepared next time, so that’s a positive point. Focus on the value they’re gaining from the process, not just the outcome. When you’re doing this exercise, it’s really important to still allow your young athlete to voice some of their more negative emotions first—sometimes we need the release of saying the race was rubbish, the ref was biased, or that we’re never going to put on a pair of goggles again. But once they’ve had that visceral reaction, steer them gently towards a more compassionate reflection.

There will always be another competition

Sometimes it can seem like one performance is the end of the line, especially if it’s part of a qualifying process, or the aim is to achieve a selection standard. This can increase pressure (and an accompanying fear of failure) because it’s easy to exaggerate the consequences of not performing, and not achieving the defined objective. But although it can be frustrating to have a setback at this point, encourage your child to see this performance as just one in a long sequence. There will always be another opportunity—the next race, match or tournament—especially for youngsters, who tend to compete regularly. This is something that elite athletes have to manage in a slightly different way, because competitions like the Olympic Games really do only happen every four years!

Re-define ‘failure’

Failure is such a negatively-charged word—nobody wants to be a failure; nobody wants to fail in a task or fail to meet expectations. I listened to a great talk the other day about a school in America that use the statement ‘Not Yet’ on report cards, instead of announcing that a student has ‘Failed’ to achieve adequate grades—I think this is a brilliant way to emphasise how a poor performance is just a small setback on the path to achievement, and not an insinuation that it’s the end of the line. This is the kind of attitude that elite athletes learn to adopt when it comes to failure, and there’s something very special about seeing an athlete who has been knocked down repeatedly, finally succeed.

For so long in my sporting career, failure was something I feared, because I was scared of not achieving what I believed I could. But people who fail are not failures. People who fail are just human. So, I’ve re-defined failure and success, and this topic is now one of the things I’m asked to talk about most with young people.

My new definition is this:

“As long as you have done your absolute best to achieve your goal, then you have succeeded, no matter what the outcome is”.

Don’t mollycoddle kids!

Children from a very young age are taught that failing is bad and that they must avoid it at all costs. On the surface this seems rational because in some respects we can avoid ‘failure’ by simply working hard and being motivated to succeed. On the other hand, vilifying failure in this way also teaches kids to be scared of pushing themselves too far, because failure can obviously also be found when we push ourselves beyond what we’re capable of. Having this apprehension about not achieving the goals that they set themselves can actually inhibit progress because it causes kids to play it safe. In this respect, there’s something very wrong with teaching young people to fear failure.

It makes sense that parents want to protect their children at all costs, to keep them safe from both physical harm and mental distress. But if children aren’t exposed to disappointments and setbacks, then they actually become less effective, in the long-term, at navigating failure. Avoiding situations in which an undesirable outcome is possible can also add to anxiety, because children can become incapacitated by their fear of failing. Only by actively engaging with risk do kids learn how to pivot from those sticking points and move forward with renewed knowledge and motivation.

Helping young athletes remove the barrier that comes with failing is really important, and it’s not that difficult to do it. Start by actively encouraging failure, keep a tally of the times when your child was brave enough to push themselves outside their comfort zone and give it their all, regardless of result. Praise your kids for the effort that accompanied their performance, even if it resulted in them being knocked out of the competition, coming fourth, or falling down. Ultimately, it isn’t the falling down that will define them, it’s the getting back up.

1 Comment

  1. So very true, going to let my son who swims read this, and be there to challenge his sometimes negative opinion of his races.

    I often Say your first positive is actually getting up at stupid o clock 4 days of the week, and will serve you better later in life and your career as you have already mastered many challenges.

Leave a Reply