Tough love; it’s something most of us have been brought up with. Although modern parenting would have it otherwise, there’s something to be said for the traditional way of learning. And it extends into all fields – from sport to business.
Because learning to fail from a young age is said to equip us with vital coping skills later in life. However, sports psychology reminds us that it’s never too late to learn new skills, and embracing failure for success is just one of these.
Learning to ‘Fail SMART’ can support athletes with a great amount of skills and emotional competencies, helping to promote learning and personal growth.
This has been seen time and again by professionals in the sport. Serena Williams who faced setbacks in the U.S. Open in 2015 commented that losing drives her to the best she can be.
In this article, we look at how to Fail SMART and why it can be beneficial to one’s learning, growth and development.
What is ‘Failing SMART’ (and Why Does it Matter?)
The keyword here is not ‘failure’ but indeed ‘SMART’ – it’s an important distinction to make. It closely linked to SMART goals.
Failing simply means being unsuccessful in a pursuit. Failing SMART means being unsuccessful, but using the experience as an opportunity for learning. It’s failing purposefully towards success.
It has been summarised as: “The ability to learn from your experience, and come away stronger, wiser, and ready to succeed.”
As such, it’s a practice that many; CEOs, business leaders, athletes, sports coaches and sports managers have adopted. And with good reason. Studies have shown that athletes who exercise self-compassion in failure can cope better with managing negative events in sport.
Learning from failure matters especially in sport, where an athlete is expected to pick themselves up time and time again. Through acceptance of making mistakes, athletes can explore their limits and how they face challenges head-on, this can in turn accelerate learning.
Behaviours for Dealing with Failure
When looking at failure for success, there’s certain behaviours that can assist with dealing with the challenges, these include some of the following:
- Reflection Process – In order to learn from our setbacks, there must first be a process in place. A sports coach is the perfect person to help devise a post-event method to apply to learning. This could be through reflection or team feedback sessions for instance. The key here is consistency.
- Challenging Oneself – Risk taking is inherit to sport, since it forces the athlete to work harder and explore different avenues for success. Learning to stretch oneself is crucial for dealing with failure, and is an area that should be encouraged for development.
- Growing Resilience – Learning from failure in itself is seen as an opportunity to both learn and grow personal resilience.
- Learning Process – Key stakeholders, including sports coaches involved must understand that failure is intrinsic to learning and to help promote learning from the process.
- Acceptance – Part of learning to fail smart is about accepting one’s shortcomings. This needs to be supported from all members of the team, notably the sports coach. Praise should be rewarded for effort, regardless of outcome.
How to Fail SMART
Much has been written about learning from experience, especially in the field of sport. It’s positive to see that the role of sports coaches in this process has been recognised too. In a recent report, it was highlighted that the work of ‘sports psychologists’ contributed greatly to the success of British athletes. Poignantly it goes on to add that “top athletes are often as familiar with their mental states as they are with their physical capabilities.”
Therefore, acknowledging that there are many benefits in failing smart, how can we hone the art of managing setbacks in a constructive way?
Here’s a few areas for contemplation:
- Early exposure to experience failure is important. This helps to hone a person’s problem-solving skills and coping mechanism, as well as identify areas for improvement. It may also be beneficial in learning to accept responsibility and taking on feedback constructively. By learning to do this early on, it will encourage athletes to develop strategies.
- Failure should not be viewed as something to be embarrassed about, it needs to be viewed as an opportunity for learning, for bettering oneself, and for self-reflection.
- With learning in mind, a sports coach can develop training sessions towards this process. This means learning to perform with consequences and personal management on how to deal with these better.
- To help form a better approach, it also means understanding what the margin for error is. This is a familiar approach in risk-taking. However, there should also be clear guidelines on what is and what isn’t acceptable for failure. For instance, it’s ok to come third in a race if you gave it your all in training, but conversely failing to turn up to training or practice beforehand isn’t an excuse for not performing to one’s best.
- Due to the nature of its sensitivity, the sports coach should also be prepared for some of the emotional challenges – these are perfectly normal and to be expected.
- It’s important to acknowledge that mistakes will be made and failure is an inevitability. However, it’s the response to the issue which is the most important part of the process.
Failure is something we will all face at some point in life. But, having a positive mind-set and knowing how to channel the information is key to learning from the experience.
This is especially true of athletes, who are subjected to winning and losing on a grand scale. Understanding the realistic margins for failure, and the realms within which failure is acceptable are also significant. But so is support from the sports coach, championing them and praising them where praise is due. In turn, this will help promote learning and growth from our failures.