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How to Handle Failure
Dealing with major mistakes, failures, and losses can be one of the toughest and most challenging things we face. How do you deal with them? What do you do after you completely bomb a game? How do you handle it during the game when you realize you're bombing and there's still much left to play? How do you bounce back? Well it is all about how you look at it and what you take away from it happening. Randy Pausch, the well-known professor from Carnegie Mellon University and author of one of my favorite books The Last Lecture, said that brick walls are made purposefully to let us prove how badly we want something. To make sure we are willing to work hard enough to figure out how to get through them. I have found through my own experiences and watching and listening to others' experiences that during or after failure, you will more than likely find yourself blessed with a second chance or recover in an undeniably satisfying way. Positive outcomes stemming from negative events is not a new phenomenon.
Any time I work with an athlete who is living through what they would describe as a worst-case scenario or an utter failure, I remind them of how great it is they are experiencing it now. Living with it now. When failure occurs, it means you went after something with everything you had. You wanted something. You were working hard for something. How lucky are you that you had that? How lucky are you that you even had a goal or dream to go after? If you are never messing up, you are not doing anything. You are not even trying. Better it did happen and better it happened now so we can learn from it. It is a forced reassessment. There was something you must have needed to learn or experience in order to achieve it. There must be something else that was needed, something to be gained and earned that had not yet. The quicker we can get through these failures, the faster we can bounce back and attack again; better, stronger, smarter, faster.
So, what can you take away from failure? What can you learn? You must still learn to believe in yourself. You must still have faith that things are as they should be and that they will get better. Depending on the degree of failure you have experienced, you may even feel like things can only get better. Once you are at a rock bottom low, you can only go up. Keeping belief, especially in yourself, can be the hardest after failure. Usually your confidence and self-efficacy, for whatever task you botched, are low. The best way to gain confidence is to think of previous times you did succeed, the times you nailed a performance, the times you pulled it out. Focus consistently on those great memories, every detail. Focus on how you felt before, during, and after. The more you can practice the way you felt before those great performances the more likely you will be able to set yourself up for great success, just like in the past.
Continue to focus on what you can control. This cuts out a lot of "crap" you try to beat yourself up over. You can only control so much. You can control how you feel, how you've fueled your body, how much sleep you've had, practicing and training beforehand, having a game/race plan. The major thing, pretty much the only thing, you can control is you. Focus on you and making you better. Take care of yourself. Take any pieces of advice that failure has given you to add to your knowledge. Alter your plan of action and structure your next attack with the new information in mind. Adjust and adapt as needed.
As you adjust and adapt, you must prepare for the uncontrollable. All those things that have gone wrong or could go wrong: what other people could say or do, your reactions, the weather, the audience, the opponent, equipment complications. You never know when you may encounter some technical difficulties. Be prepared. Expect the unexpected. One of the most useful tools Joe Whitney, the Director of Mental Training for the University of Tennessee Athletic Department, taught me was how to prepare to handle what other people say and do before a big performance. Coaches and teammates have a high impact when they say something right before you are about to step up to the plate. If it is something that adds pressure or gets in your head, you are bound to have a not-so-great performance unless you learn how to adapt, readjust, and react positively to whatever they do or say. This idea can also roll over to intimidation tactics used by opponents or fans. If you are already prepared for them to get in your face, when they do, it can be pretty comical. You are in control of your thoughts and emotions and you can use these incidences to your advantage when they happen because you have already prepared for them.
Find and use all resources available to you. For example, I have never understood Division I student-athletes who do not use everything available to them. Why not see the sport psychologist? The nutritionist? Why not hit up the training room for an ice bath, a rub down, or an active stretch by a trainer? Why not see a tutor if you have a hard time writing papers or in math class? If It is there for you, USE IT! I understand not everyone has access to what collegiate athletes do, but so many do not realize what resources they do have and how they could be beneficial. If you belong to a gym, make sure to get a tour to make sure you know the benefits of every machine, every section, and all the benefits that come with your membership. If you golf at a country club, set up a session with the golf pro before summer when you play the most to help get back in the swing of things. If you are bouncing back from an injury, take advantage of physical therapists, athletic trainers, and chiropractors. A lot of people use so many excuses when they have gone through a failure or made a mistake and getting better seems hopeless, too much work. Well it is work. And it takes effort, and time, and energy. It might even take research. Being great does not just happen, it takes commitment. No matter who you are or what price point you can afford, there are resources available to you that you need to take advantage of.