The last 10 yards of her race, it was obvious she wasn’t going to win.
For her, it’s kind of startling, considering how dominant she’s been in this event and how little she tends to lose. As she throws herself into the wall to finish out, the crowd in attendance goes berserk.
She’s lost the race. Unbelievable!
Not only does she not win her race, she doesn’t even finish second. She finishes third. And, not only does she finish third, it’s not even a personal best time.
For a swimmer of her caliber, that’s what most people would consider a failure.
The winner and runner-up to her right are both celebrating. However, it’s in this moment where the qualities that make her an elite swimmer really show. She’s calm. She shows no outward expression of anger, frustration, or disappointment. She simply climbs out of the pool, grabs her stuff, and heads to her team’s area.
I was at the meet, and I was able to keep my eyes on her the entire time as she started making her way back to her team. Would she start to get angry? Would she throw her stuff down, put her head in her hands, and sulk? None of that ever happened. She simply heads to the warm down pool to warm herself down, put the previous race behind her, and begin preparing for tomorrow.
The very next day, she swims the 200y Back. And, it’s almost as if the failure from the day before had never happened. She dominates the 200y Back, winning the event by almost 2 seconds and achieving a new lifetime best time. Not only that, but she breaks the NCAA and American record in the process.
The meet? The 2018 Women’s NCAA National Championships. The swimmer? Kathleen Baker.
She displayed a similar bounce back from failure at the US National Championships just last month. Competing in the pre-lims for the 100m Back, she finishes 3rd, with 16 year-old Raegan Smith finishing 1st. However, in the finals, Kathleen bounces back to win the event, and not only that, she does it by setting a new world record in the process.
Now THAT’S how you bounce back from failure.
You choose to swim. It’s a voluntary activity, whether you’re an age-group swimmer or a seasoned pro. As long as you’re going to choose to swim, that means that you have to agree to certain conditions. One of those conditions is that, at various points throughout your time in swimming, you’re going to fail. It’s GOING to happen to you, whether you want it to or not.
Success in swimming isn’t accomplished with the battles you win inside the pool. Success in swimming is accomplished with the battles you win outside the pool; how you emotionally cope with big races, how you handle the challenges and obstacles of competitive swimming, and most importantly, how you mentally respond to the failures that you experience. The swimmers that are the most efficient at winning those mental battles will rise to the top, and the swimmers that can’t win those mental battles will sink to the bottom.
Failure will come at some point. You need to be mentally and emotionally equipped to deal with it. Here’s several ways you can do just that.
1) Work on changing your overall mindset towards failure – Stop fearing it.
From a young age, we’re essentially brainwashed and conditioned to fear losing and failure. Parents, coaches, teammates, friends, and the environment around us as a whole convince us that failure is some kind of awful boogeyman that we’re supposed to demonize and be frightened of. However, as someone who has spent over a decade working with athletes on the PGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the MLS, the UFC, as well as International and NCAA D1 Swimmers, I can tell you from direct experience that the most successful, happy, emotionally balanced athletes don’t fear failure. It’s not something that scares them.
Take Adam Peaty, for example. Adam isn’t afraid to lose. He’s not scared of failure. It’s not something he allows to strike fear into him or control him. He once said this:
“Pressure doesn’t exist. It’s an artificial thing that’s a cloud that some people choose to carry and some choose to shove away. I choose to shove away as it doesn’t exist. It’s something I have never really understood. I have never really felt pressure. What is the worst that can happen? I come second?”
Lebron James is a household name. Even if you’re not a basketball fan, you probably know who he is. He’s one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game (COUGH – Michael Jordan is the greatest! – COUGH). He’s a 3-time NBA champion. He’s an Olympic Gold medalist. He once said this about failure:
“You can’t be afraid to fail. It’s the only way to succeed. I’m not going to succeed all of the time and I know that.”
The first step in bouncing back quickly from failure is not done after the failure has already happened. The first step in bouncing back quickly from failure comes before the failure happens. It comes by changing your overall mindset and outlook towards failure by no longer demonizing it and seeing it as some horrific apparition to be afraid of. When you no longer fear failure, It no longer has the power to grip you. When failure no longer has the power to grip you, you strip away its ability to cause you to break down when it occurs. When failure can’t cause you to break down, you’re able to move past the failure with ease.
The fact of the matter is that failure in swimming is never worth fearing. There’s always the next race, the next meet, or the next season. It’s not like you’re going to be perpetually stuck in the past with your failure for the rest of time. There’s always going to be the next opportunity to have at it, to go again, and to redeem yourself. And, if for some reason there isn’t, your life will go on. You’ll be a happy, content human-being because the quality of your life and who you are as a person doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be tied to your swimming. You’re worth infinitely more than whatever results you get in a pool.
2) Don’t create a narrative in your mind.
This is so, so common. A swimmer will fail at something, and then almost immediately, they start the process of convincing themselves of some kind of false narrative. They weave a story in their mind along the lines of, “If I failed today, I’m probably going to fail tomorrow”, or numerous other kinds of negative plots they plant into their head.
There is no connection between the past and the present. Whatever results you achieved yesterday, that has no impact on and has nothing to do with what you’re capable of achieving today. Each day’s performances and each day’s results are the consequence of a million different variables all meshing together to create a specific outcome, variables which are often times completely outside of your control. This also means that every race, every meet, and every season is a brand new, completely clean slate. With each new race, new meet, and new season, you get to start over again fresh. The past doesn’t have to matter anymore if you refuse to let it.
When swimmers get stuck in ruts, it’s almost always a mental block. They latch themselves onto past performances and results instead of letting them go and they convince themselves that, because they’ve been failing, there must be something wrong with them or they must be likely to fail again going forward. That false narrative naturally becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they end up getting stuck in this downward, poisonous cycle as a consequence.
To bounce back quickly from failure, remind yourself that what happened today is done, and what happens tomorrow is going to be dictated by what you do that day, not by what’s happened before. Constantly drill into your head that every race, every meet, and every season is its own unique circumstance and that what’s happened in the past has nothing to do with what you’re capable of achieving moving forward into the present and future.
3) See failure as a growth opportunity.
I talked before about how the most successful, happy, emotionally balanced athletes don’t fear failure. Well, not only do they not fear failure, they also see it as a positive. They’re able to see failure for what it REALLY is – an opportunity to expose their weaknesses so that they can see precisely where they need to improve themselves and so that they can allow themselves to succeed in the future.
Shaun White is the greatest snowboarder of all-time. He is a three-time Olympic Gold medalist. He holds the record for the most X-Games Gold medals and most Olympic Gold medals by a snowboarder. He’s also won 10 ESPY Awards. This is how Shaun White approaches failure:
“I always feel like I can’t fail. If I show up and win, that’s great and I’m motivated to try and win again. But, if I fail, it’s almost even better because I get driven and I know where I need to be now.”
Obviously, you never TRY to fail. You never want to go out of your way to try and lose a race or miss out on an important cut. You don’t try to make those things happen. That goes without saying. However, when it does happen, you take away that failure’s power to negatively impact you being seeing that failure for the golden egg that it is. You see that failure as a growth opportunity – a chance to fully understand where your short-comings fall, what you need to improve on, and then use those gifts to drive you forward and motivate you to become better.
4) Be compassionate towards yourself.
The scientific research on self-criticism is clear and irrefutable. The more you allow yourself to indulge in harshly criticizing yourself, the more damage you’ll be doing to yourself, both physically, mentally, and in terms of your future success.
Research in the US, Canada, and Europe overwhelmingly shows that self-criticism contributes to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use disorders, juvenile delinquency, physical health conditions, and even suicidality.
Research also shows that self-criticism has a negative impact on goal motivation and goal pursuit, NOT a positive impact. In other words, the more self-critical you are, the more you damage your motivation to persevere and your chances of attaining success moving forward.
The scientific research of self-compassion is equally as clear and irrefutable. The more compassionate you are towards yourself in moments of failure, the more benefits you’ll be providing yourself in terms of your mental health, physical health, and future success.
Research has conclusively shown that people who practice self-compassion experience higher levels of life satisfaction, wisdom, happiness, optimism, curiosity, learning goals, social connectedness, personal responsibility, and emotional resilience.
Research has conclusively shown that people who are more compassionate towards themselves rather than self-critical experience the following benefits: They have a greater motivation to make amends and prevent future failures, they spend more time working to improve, and they have a greater motivation to change their weaknesses compared to those who are self-critical.
If a teammate were to fail, what would you say to them? Would you come down super hard on them and criticize them into the ground? Or, would you try to inspire them, encourage them, motivate them, and lift them up? I’m willing to be you’d do the latter. If you’re willing to do that for a teammate when they fail, why can’t you treat yourself the same way when you fail? You can, and you should.
To bounce back quickly from failure, don’t criticize yourself. Its fine to critique your performance, but don’t fall into the trap of criticizing yourself too harshly. Be compassionate towards yourself. Encourage yourself, inspire yourself, and lift yourself up. It’s in moments of failure when treating yourself compassionately becomes most important.
If you can rid yourself of the fear of failure, prevent yourself from creating a false narrative in your mind, see failure as a positive growth opportunity, and be compassionate towards yourself, you’ll be able to bounce back from failure effortlessly.
Thanks for reading, and all the best!
About Will Jonathan
Will Jonathan is a sports mental coach from Fort Myers, Florida. His clients include athletes on the PGA Tour, the Web.com Tour, Major League Baseball, the UFC, the Primera Liga, the Olympics, and the NCAA, as well as providing numerous talks and presentations on the mental aspect of sport and peak performance to various sports programs and organizations across the country. He’s currently the official mental coach for the Florida State University Swimming & Diving team. He provides private, 1-to-1 mental coaching sessions for swimmers on location or through Skype, as well as providing talks and presentations to swim teams on the mental aspects of swimming.
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