It’s that time of the year again when we possibly reflect on our race seasons – watts, sorry - warts and all. Was it one to remember or merely one to forget?

In the realm of sports, failure is an intrinsic part of the journey towards success. Whether you’re an Olympian or a weekend warrior, you’re probably no stranger to the highs and lows that come with crossing a start line. Failure in sports can manifest itself in various forms, such as losing a match, missing a crucial shot, or falling short of a personal best. Even the very best of us have to suffer it.

For example, Mark Cavendish missed out on a medal at the Olympic Games in 2008. He was then a favourite for the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in the road race. As it turns out, the GB team did the lion’s share of the work in London for most of the day, but they couldn’t do it all (and to make matters worse a questionable rider then won).

You have to remember that Team GB was an absolute gold medal-winning machine during this era with most of their cycling squad going home with silverware, so it’s not fun to be ‘that guy’ without one. 

In 2016 though, some eight years after his first Olympic bid, Cavendish finally brought the bacon home with a silver medal in the Madison event on the track. Stories like this remind aspiring athletes and fans alike that success is not linear, nor easy. It’s the product of dedication, hard work, and our unwavering commitment to improvement – irrespective of whether you’re racing in your kindergarten egg and spoon race at 6 or racing against the undertaker at 85.

Categorising failure

The science community has talked about failure in sport for a while. Even way back in 1978, a paper by Harris and Eitzen attempted to categorise us all into six types. It said that there are those who:

  1. realise the futility of their efforts and choose to drop out or not try for the next higher level
  2. fail early (as children) and never again participate
  3. consistently fail in sport, but keep on trying
  4. succeed at lower levels, but fail to reach the higher level
  5. attain the highest possible level, but fail at that level
  6. define themselves as failures because they set unattainable goals

I suspect that if you’re reading this, you’re already in two or three of these camps. For me, as someone who comes from an engineering design background, I often have a tendency to look at my failures in sport in the same way that I’d crash-test a product - it’s neither good nor bad but merely a statement of an outcome.

This concept - stripped of emotion - makes dealing with falling short of objectives or dreams considerably easier to live with and move on from. However, I’ve been told that this approach (which sees me cry into my breakfast cereal a little less often than many) actually misses the point.

The most successful athletes understand that setbacks are not to be feared, but rather embraced as opportunities for self-discovery and enhancement. The science agrees on this too. A 2015 comprehensive review of resilience in sport concluded that ‘the ability to respond positively to setbacks, obstacles, and failures is essential for any successful athlete’. The critical word there is ‘positively’.

Failure isn’t merely about our performance but also about reinforcing our character and developing resilience. Derek Redmond’s long haul to the finish line at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics has become a truly symbolic positive failure.

The story goes that Redmond in the 400m-metre final (having set some of the fastest times in qualifying) tore his hamstring 150 metres into the race. He initially collapsed in pain as medics rushed towards him. However, before they got to him, he got up, started limping before Redmond’s father appeared from the stands and helped support his son make it to the finish line.

Anyone who wasn’t in tears was up giving a standing ovation. I was a 17-year-old Terminator wannabe at the time and was frankly doing both. Redmond’s race may have been a failure in terms of winning a medal but it reinforced to him and others exactly what a true champion is really made of.

In some ways, this is not unlike that the Apollo 13 lunar mission. Immortalised in the film of the same name; three astronauts attempted to land on the moon but ended up nearly marooned in the void of space after a mechanical malfunction. NASA, with some of the best problem-solving skills I’ve ever read about, managed to get them home and the mission was ultimately described as a ‘successful failure’ (in that the moon was not reached but that they saved the astronauts).

‘A successful failure’

You may well have experienced this concept of ‘successful failure’ yourself – I know I did this year. I was out in the Netherlands trying to qualify for the UCI Gravel World Championships and after four hours of flat-out racing, I fell short of qualification by a mere two minutes. I set good numbers and rode pretty well from gun to tape, but it wasn’t enough. I went home satisfied with the ride, but less so with the abundance of pastries I wolfed down, alongside a beer whose label I couldn’t pronounce, in my insulin-spiked state afterwards.

Thus far, the whole concept of failure seems to be something less grounded in science and more steeped in the complexity of our psyche or the randomness of life in general. However, scientists have attempted to provide structure and guidance to help us develop our resilience, which ultimately will make us better performers.

A 2012 model suggested that the key factors of psychological resilience and its links to optimal sports performance are:

  • Confidence
  • Perceived social support
  • Focus
  • Motivation
  • Positive personality

These can’t all be artificially generated but our awareness of these key factors allows us to then take practical steps towards getting the right result. For example, having the right people around you on race day, listening to the right music, eating the right food, and picking the right events are all actions you can take. This will build resilience and then in turn, helps deal with our failures.

However, that’s not all; a recent study demonstrated that athletes who executed a little ‘self-compassion’ (or what I’d crudely say would be to ‘stop kicking yourself in the ass and be kind to yourself’), actually reduced their heart rate variability and stress. Ceccarelli and colleagues’ results actually suggested that self-compassion promoted an adaptive physiological and psychological response. Ultimately, this may have implications for an athlete’s performance enhancement, recovery and health outcomes. 

The skills learned through failure in sports are transferable to various aspects of our lives, from our careers to our relationships. So, what is the take home message here?

It’s one that both the science and our experiences tell us that failure in sports is not a reason to be disheartened, but rather an essential element in the pursuit of excellence. Its lessons in humility, resilience, and personal growth far outweigh the temporary disappointments it brings.

Our failure in sports is not something to be avoided, but rather a teacher (albeit one you hopefully don’t take a detention from) that guides athletes towards their fullest potential… but stay off those pastries.

Further reading