Make Failure Your Ally
If you are on this site, you are probably looking for reasons and advice on how to improve as an athlete or coach. Ways to start doing the things you know you should do, and stop the things you shouldn’t. But here’s the killer. You probably take little or no action in relation to the information you discover.
To enable meaningful change, all you have to do is follow a simple framework.
Learning from mistakes is about factual analysis.
Your Mental Black Box
The aviation industry is the window to this concept. It’s an incredibly safe and efficient industry. But, should the worst happen and an aircraft goes down, the black box is analysed to find out why. This isn’t to attribute blame, but to gather information that is used to improve aircraft systems, training, procedures, and regulations to prevent the same failure from ever happening again. The black box is about factual thinking. Imagine you could learn from your own failures so that they would never be repeated. Yet, when was the last time you analysed the reasons behind your failures?
Being immersed in aviation for decades, I decided to investigate what would happen if we treated individuals with the same approach as the black box. The results were astounding. Initially, I found reluctance due to our innate tendency to ignore, or even delete failures from our memory altogether. But seeing failure as something we can learn from creates a roadmap to success and reduces something I call PEP: Perceived Effort and Pain.
- Perception: We perceive everything around us differently. We are all unique. But what we all have in common is that we live in a world that is trying to avoid failure. As a society we view failure as something bad. We are naturally quick to judge the mistakes of others and hide our own to avoid the same fate.
- Effort: Our entire existence is based on energy exchange. Effort requires energy. Deep down we know that effort is more important than ability, but we know it also has a cost. We have survived and evolved by minimizing the effort required to do everything. This is the driver of our behaviours and habits.
- Pain: We all understand pain whether physical or emotional. Unfortunately, most of us do not understand how to manage it properly and therefore seek to avoid pain whenever possible. I’m not referring to the pain you feel while training hard, as you are gaining something from this in terms of endorphins, performance improvements, and improved confidence from feeling healthy and looking great. If you already train habitually, you likely experience this pain in other aspects of your program like mobility or nutrition.
You can think of PEP as the force that stops you from doing the things you want to or know you should. It prevents us from writing down our goals, hitting that extra training session each week, or gets in the way of the five minutes of mobility work we want to do each day. So how do we overcome it?
Why Do We Ignore Failure?
Our brains don’t come with a robust user manual. We are victims of our own evolutionary programming to avoid thoughts of failure. Victim may sound a bit harsh, but imagine the black box was never retrieved. There wouldn’t be any answers, no way to fix what went wrong, and total frustration and anger. You have possibly felt like this with roadblocks in your own fitness, health, and life.
So why do we delete our own black box and ignore failure? We perceive failure as having an emotional cost or energy requirement. Your brain is an efficient machine that will minimise energy output wherever possible by blocking items that have high PEP. We have evolved and survived this way, which is why changing is so hard.
At this point it’s worth thinking about habits. A habit is a behavior or action that occurs with little or no conscious thought. Your brain loves habits because they carry very little energy cost. It’s estimated that around 45-50 percent of our daily behaviours are habitually based for this reason.
Learn the Habit of Failure-Thinking
The next time something goes wrong or you experience a PEP roadblock, you have to acknowledge it. Use a “PEP talk” to remind you of the first steps, and ask yourself the following questions:
- I want to: [fill in the blank] but I don’t or can’t.
- Perception: Why do I want to “WIN?” What are my Wants, Interests or Needs that make this important to me? Remember failure is not bad; it is my map. I have to learn from it to succeed.
- Effort: What makes this action difficult for me? List everything you can think of and identify the three biggest influences that hold you back.
- Pain: What is/was the emotional cost or underlying reason stopping me? What pain does this action create or what pleasure does it remove?
If you are struggling to answer these questions, simply ask yourself “why?” Usually it takes less than five “why”s to find the root cause. For example, I don’t get up for my morning session. Why? I can’t be bothered. Why? I’m tired. Why? I didn’t get much sleep. Why? I went to bed late. Why? I don’t have a set bedtime or bedtime routine. This helps to identify that the cause of this ‘failure’ is going to bed too late and even hints at possible solutions.
You may naturally start to find that answers become clear in the “Effort” section. But it’s normal to be unsure about a solution, and you don’t have to find one just yet. The first task is simply to make a habit of acknowledging that failure has taken place and use the “PEP talk.”
Redefine Your Relationship With Failure
There are three things to remember when using this framework:
- It takes time to get good at using the tools.
- Failure is your roadmap. Be relentless in your pursuit of why it went wrong.
- Be individual. Don’t be afraid to search for other inspiration outside these tools. This is a framework to get you moving.
Only you can get over your Perceived Effort and Pain. Take responsibility and give it a try. Failure is a very real part of everyday life that should not be ignored. It’s the key to improvement. Remember that this process has transformed the aviation industry and it can work for you on a personal level, too. By re-defining your relationship with failure you are driving towards a high performance revolution.
How does all this work inside your head?
Coaches: How are you teaching your athletes to handle failures?