Those of us living within the world of competitive sport have heard it all when it comes to failure. It’s unavoidable. It’s necessary for success. It should be looked at as “an opportunity for growth.” Failure holds a particularly central place in baseball.
Baseball—the only major sport that tracks “errors”. The only sport where failure at the plate is expected at least 70% of the time. Given that conventionally defined “failure” is inherent in baseball, devoting time to examining and enhancing our relationship with failure is more than beneficial; it is crucial for those of us determined to compete at the highest level.
Do We Have to Fail?
Before we discuss the how of optimizing failure, let’s address the question posed by many of the athletes I work with: Can I outwork, outsmart, or otherwise avoid failure?
The allure of this avenue is clear: never having to deal with the feeling of letting people down, never having to admit you fell short. It’s enticing. So—is it possible? In a word: Yes. As you may expect, though, effectively engineering failure out of sport (and life) requires giving up a lot of other stuff, too.
The only way to be sure you never fail is to never put yourself in a position where failure is an option. Needless to say, this takes a lot of things off the table. Chief among them: high achievement. The pursuit of greatness requires a rigorous commitment to personal growth and improvement. The processes integral to continually rediscovering our “best”—developing novel skills, searching for more efficient ways of executing practiced skills, etc.—require training at the edge of our competency. In doing so, we leave ourselves vulnerable to failure. Indeed, the early stages of skill development result in failure about 50% of the time. Put simply: In order to achieve great feats in sport (and life), we must be willing to know great defeat.
I say this to make it clear that we all have a choice when it comes to the role failure plays in our lives. We can choose to avoid it (and deal with the repercussions), let it tear us down, or let it make us better. Making this choice is the first—and easiest—step.
Relating with Failure
Now that we agree that avoidance of failure is not an option for those of us committed to elite performance, we must do the work to transform our relationship with failure. One characteristic shared by performers considered “the best” is that they make failure work for them. Instead of regarding failure as a threat to be feared and wasting precious resources responding to it in an unproductive way, they have developed a relationship with failure that allows them to consistently view it as objective, constructive feedback; they have learned to optimize failure. In order for us to do the same, let’s investigate two key aspects of our relationship with failure: how we define failure, and the lens through which we process and respond to failure.
Before discussing how to most productively respond to failure, we need to decide what qualifies as a failure (a step often overlooked). A quick Google search yields many takes on what constitutes a failure, from lack of effort to a losing record. In baseball, conventional definitions of failure immediately come to mind: striking out, making an error, allowing a run, losing a game, etc.
It is less crucial to agree upon which definition is “right”, as each athlete will define failure differently, contingent upon their current goals, strengths, and weaknesses. What’s more important is to ensure that our definition of failure is workable; that it is constructed in a way that maximizes its ability to achieve its objective (providing constructive, applicable feedback).
The primary barrier athletes encounter, here, stems from having defined failure in a way that produces feedback that isn’t actionable. Often, this is because their failure framework is too rigid and absolute or is contingent upon aspects of performance that are partially or entirely beyond their control. Let’s consider a reliever whose definition of failure is coughing up the lead and taking an “L”. This framework—though common—isn’t particularly workable.
In this circumstance, the feedback the reliever walks away with is the knowledge that they gave up the lead and lost the game. Not only is this frustrating, but it also isn’t all that useful for the athlete; he hasn’t received any detailed feedback about how or why things fell apart (did he get too deep in the count? Lose focus on the mound? Have poor pitch selection?). Upon returning to training, the athlete lacks information on what specific aspect of his play he needs to improve to lessen the likelihood of a repeat “failure”. The result? Inefficient and emotionally draining training sessions.
Another weak point of this definition is that it is dependent on factors beyond the athlete’s control. While the “L” is in part the fault of the reliever, there could be other aspects at play (fielding errors, missed calls, mental mistakes, etc.). If failure feedback pertains to something beyond an athlete’s control, it is in no way actionable. Some may consider this an attempt to shift blame or evade accountability. In truth, it is objective fact—some “failures” are attributable to events entirely beyond our sphere of influence. It is extremely unproductive to internalize such instances as a personal failure; in doing so, we risk losing valuable training time and energy attempting to influence or improve that which we cannot change.
If our objective is to utilize failure as specific, constructive feedback that informs training and improves performance, we must be willing to reexamine and rework how we define failure. Ironically, I have found that it is only by encouraging athletes to introduce flexibility into their definitions of failure (and success) that they perform their best in the rather cut and dry game of baseball.
Responding to Failure
To ensure we respond to failure (whatever our definition) optimally, we must also commit to processing failure through a certain lens.
Let’s first consider how many of us—explicitly or not—have been told we should respond to failure. When we fail, the expected response is one of self-criticism, self-blame, and rumination. Many of us believe that relating to ourselves and our failures in this way is necessary for success in elite sport. What’s more, many athletes fear that, by making their definition of failure more workable and responding to failure with less self-criticism, judgment, and rumination, they will become complacent. They worry that, by transforming their relationship with failure, they will be perceived as weak, their performance standards will drop, and their motivation will plummet.
Interestingly, research suggests that these “traditional” responses to failure can actually be counterproductive.a Responding to failure in this harsh manner undermines self-regulation, emotional recovery, and stress management. Such reactions feed into avoidance and fear of failure and are costly to our mental and physical health. Notably, rumination and self-criticism activate the body’s stress response, which inhibits coordination, decision making, response time, and automatic skill execution. This means that responding to failure amidst a game with criticism and judgment has a direct, negative impact on our body’s physical performance on the diamond.
What can we do, then, to respond to failure in a way that is more conducive to high level performance? Research indicates that athletes who consistently respond to failure most effectively are those who have a growth mindset,bc are task-oriented,b and practice self-compassion.a
Growth Mindset, Task Orientation
When it comes to how productively we cope with failure, research points toward one particularly salient factor: our mindset.bc
Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that we are born with a finite and static amount of basic qualities (intelligence, sport talent, social skills, etc.), and that these fixed traits are responsible for our successes. Because of this, they interpret failure as a reflection of their innate personhood—something that no amount of effort can change. They grow to avoid challenges, give up easily, and feel threatened by others’ success. Due to a fear of failure, they plateau early, and achieve less than their full potential.
Alternatively, individuals with a growth mindset believe that skills can be cultivated through intentional effort. They consider failure essential to the learning process, embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, and are motivated by the success of others.
A growth mindset goes hand-in-hand with a task-centered goal orientation. Task-oriented athletes are focused on improvement and fueled by a desire to learn. As compared to ego-oriented athletes, whose focus is on demonstrating their superiority over others (common in individuals with fixed mindsets), task-oriented athletes respond to failure more constructively and experience optimized motivation, enhanced satisfaction and enjoyment, better peer relationships, and less burnout.c
Conveniently, simply having the awareness that these two mindsets and goal orientations exist increases our likelihood to adhere to a challenge-based, task-oriented, growth mindset. Recognizing our fixed, fear-based thoughts and actively making the choice to instead engage with productive, growth-oriented thoughts can be further enhanced through mindfulness practice.
It is incredibly difficult to fully adopt a healthy relationship with failure without practicing self-compassion. At the end of the day, we are human beings. All of us are fallible. Being able to regard ourselves—as performers and people—with compassion is one of the most difficult and most important skills we can develop.
Practicing self-compassion means committing to self-kindness versus self-judgment, mindfulness versus overidentification (recognizing that failing does not equate to being a failure), and common humanity versus isolation (viewing failure as a shared human experience as opposed to an individual one).
While practicing self-compassion strikes some as “soft”, the research backing its efficacy within and beyond sport is extensive.a To highlight a few findings, practicing self-compassion is positively related to an athlete’s psychological well-being, perseverance, favorable performance evaluations, and adaptive physiological responses to failure, and negatively associated with fear of failure, anxiety, shame, and passivity.a
Soft or not, the science is clear: Practicing self-compassion puts our minds and bodies in the position to perform at our best. If you’re looking to cultivate greater self-compassion, consider starting with practicing compassion for others and engaging in compassion/kindness meditation.
By transforming our relationship with failure and committing to letting our newfound perspective inform our actions (and reactions) in training and competition, we maximize our likelihood of consistently delivering top-tier performances.
Those of us who do the work—and genuinely believe in the work—will become more flexible, adaptable, resilient, engaged, and healthier performers; characteristics that can make all the difference when striving to compete at the highest level.
Katie Pagel is the founder of Strive Performance, mental performance training for athletes and performers of all ages and skill levels.
aCeccarelli, L. A., Giuliano, R. J., Glazebrook, C. M., & Strachan, S. M. (2019). Self-compassion and psycho-physiological recovery from recalled sport failure. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1564.
bDweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
cPotgieter, R. D., & Steyn, B. J. M. (2010). Goal orientation, self-theories and reactions to success and failure in competitive sport: psychological perspectives. African Journal for Physical Health Education, Recreation and Dance, 16(4), 635-647.