Failure: The Secret Sauce of Sports

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It is often said or assumed that sports teach life skills. But what life skills do sports teach, and how does that process work?

To answer that question, we need to start in a vacuum. An actual vacuum (not a metaphorical one).

Sir James Dyson is the inventor of the bagless vacuum, and founder of the billion-dollar company which bears his name. There’s a good chance that if you own a vacuum today, its existence started somewhere in his brain.

Dyson famously constructed 5,127 failed prototypes over fifteen years before he had his first marketable vacuum.   

We hear stories like these often - Thomas Edison’s 1,000 attempts at the light bulb, Abe Lincoln’s many career failures and electoral losses, Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school team – they’re cliches about persistence. “Success comes to those who have the will to stick with it, no matter how many times they fail or get rejected!”

There is nothing wrong with that message, of course, but the way we often tell it, it actually underplays the role of failure, even in the very examples it employs.

Persistence cliches frame failure as an ugly inconvenience, something to be ignored or defeated on the way to inevitable heroic conquest. Further, they tell us nothing about how the protagonist became so uniquely persistent. Hidden in those same stories, though, is a more important and interesting truth: that the process of failing is itself a crucial experience.

When a reporter asked Thomas Edison how it felt to fail 1,000 times, he replied: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” James Dyson similarly claimed that “each failure brought me closer to solving the problem. It wasn't the final prototype that made the struggle worth it. The process bore the fruit. I just kept at it.”

What they speak of is more than just persistence. It is an ability to reframe failure as learning, to commit to a difficult, uncertain process and trust oneself, and to continually bounce back from adversity. It is a complex of sub-skills which are crucial to success, and do not come easily. In fact, they are developed patiently and painfully, through repeated, frustrating failure.

Great athletes, as well as great businessmen, inventors, artists, and leaders all display this collection of skills–often referred to with terms like resilience, growth mindset, or process orientation–and few if any are born with them. Look into the biography of any uniquely successful person, and you will find not perfect, upward trending graphs of successes, but a life almost predictably marked by key failures or disappointments. And it is not the disappointments themselves which are the signature of the journey, but the unanticipated value of the disappointment.

The Value of Failure

Failure gets our attention.

Big disappointments are memorable. They leave a mark because our nervous systems are biologically designed to remember impactful negative events. If your friend gets attacked by wild boars in the woods, the incident will leave a mental scar, and you will never forget where the wild boars hang out. Memory is a survival mechanism. Today, we don’t deal with many mortal threats, but our mistakes and disappointments are still “sticky”. It’s not because they are fundamentally bad, it’s because they are calling attention to something that is wrong in our situation, our choices, or simply in our ignorance of key realities.

Failure is the most potent form of learning.

As articulated by creators like Dyson, great success does not happen in spite of failure, it happens because of failure. When trying to do something challenging, there are inevitable obstacles for which there are no existing instructions; if the solution were obvious or known, everyone would already be doing it. In those moments, failure is your only teacher. The feedback of the trial-and-error process is your only hope. Thus, it is no surprise that embedded in so many great achievements and discoveries is a crucial moment of failure in which the hero suddenly recognizes a new path to success.

Failure is necessary for developing emotional resilience.

When attempting something difficult, there are inevitable obstacles Dyson refers to as “pain points,” where the task becomes so frustrating that, at that point, most people give up. Emotional resilience is well known to be a valued skill, but there is no easy method to train for or practice it. The only way, in fact, is to repeatedly expose yourself to such pain points, and practice the art of letting go of the painful emotion and moving forward with the task. It’s no accident that people who succeed where others have failed are exceptionally absorbent when it comes to the pain of setbacks. It’s not that they were born that way, it’s that resilience was the price of admission, and by the time you know who they are, they’ve paid their pain taxes.

Failure is necessary for developing true Autonomy and Competence.

When we are born, we are basically helpless. We cannot walk or feed ourselves. The first several years of life are about learning not only functional independence (walking, communicating, making a bowl of cereal), but overcoming the experience of powerlessness. The only way to develop a sense of efficacy and independence as a developing human is by taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from them. The experience of failing and learning is fundamental. And becoming successful in a field or in life is no different. It is highly dependent on the exposure to risk and failure. There is only one way to truly internalize the idea that we are capable, and with that feeling, continue to lean into the basic adversity of living.

Back to Sports

Almost everything an athlete does, whether throwing a pitch or executing a half-court press, has a definable goal, a clear risk of failure, an immediate and tangible outcome, and an immediate chance to try again and get better. This operates on a small scale, say with a basketball player practicing dozens of shots in the space of a single drill. It also happens on a larger scale, with basketball games and seasons, where the athlete can test skills in dynamic situations, and compare performances over time.

As a bonus, kids (tend to) play sports because they actually enjoy them and choose to invest themselves, so there is both joy and enthusiasm, and a real chance of disappointment.

In other words, it would be difficult to design a better environment for productive failure. Sports don’t automatically work to provide this environment, though. A few conditions have to be met:

Kids have to choose sports and be self-motivated.

The processes outlined above only work if kids care. If their emotional investment is in service of pleasing adults (or worse, to not disappoint adults), the risks-and-rewards equation breaks down entirely.

Kids have to be allowed to take risks and responsibility and fail.

Parents and other grown-ups involved in sports are, naturally, programmed to protect kids from pain and disappointment. But when we adults get over-involved, and when we prevent kids from experiencing disappointments and failures or owning them, we actually destroy the most valuable part. We’re also sending another message…

Kids have to get the message that failure is part of the process.

Kids aren’t stupid. They see that the world around them values success and winning, and punishes imperfection. The only way they can learn to approach failure as a learning experience, and become the resilient, courageous people they need to be, is if we adults create environments where it is safe to make mistakes, and that it is important to learn from them. Sports can either be the perfect place for this to happen, or the place where fear of failure becomes permanently stamped in their young psyches.

We want the world for our kids. But in order to have it, they must learn to experience it in full.

Justin Baker is guest writer for Trusted Coaches, the founder of Mindful Power, and a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota.