The Agony of Defeat–Lessons from Sochi
“If you aren’t falling down, you aren’t learning anything”
— My high school ski instructor
In a few hours the Sochi Winter Olympics will begin with a grand opening ceremony. As the games unfold, we will behold two dramatic scenarios: “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
While being simultaneously entertained and uplifted by the games, I like to observe how Olympians handle their inevitable failures and setbacks. Coping with failure and resolving regrets is an essential step in Honorable Closure.
Failure gets a bad rap in our culture, even though it’s a normal part of life. It’s embarrassing and difficult to admit when we’ve blown it. Whether it is a personal or professional failing, we hate to let ourselves and others down. We prefer to hide our disappointments, but Olympic athletes don’t have that luxury. You can’t find anyone better to demonstrate the symbiotic nature of success and failure.
Over the next several days, notice the way athletes speak about their setbacks and you will hear declarative language: “I knew my timing was off the moment I left the gate.” Or “It wasn’t my day. The better team won.” “I couldn’t recover my concentration after my skate caught on the ice.” They call a spade a spade without groveling in self-pity, without inflating or deflating the situation. The observations are always about the action, never an assault on their personhood or worthiness.
Next they use present-moment and forward thinking language: “I’ll be working on this with my coach and be back tomorrow.” “We’ll be reviewing the tapes to see what went wrong.” “I need to rest now, but I’ll be back tomorrow.” “One event down, two to go.” They learn from what went wrong without dwelling on it beyond its usefulness. They course correct and turn their attention forward. This requires emotional and cognitive resilience, being able to hold both success and failure as two sides of one unified experience, and being mindful of the stories they tell themselves about what it all means.
During his basketball career Michael Jordon was “entrusted to make the game winning shot 26 times and missed.” Here is a very cool 30-second YouTube video of him talking about the link between failure and success.
Enjoy the Games and the lessons they offer.
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