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Failure: The Key to Success

All athletes suffer defeat or failure. Both are negative terms, especially to the subconscious mind. Yet the process of failure is vital to success. I would go so far to say that success is not possible without failure. This blog focusses on sport, particularly swimming, although much of the theory originates in other spheres and can be applied to many other aspects of life.

…success is not possible without failure

And this subject is not just about elite sport and elite athletes. Much has been discussed about marginal gains, without full understanding of what is behind that concept, especially in the minds and actions of top sports coaches and teams.

Top sports teams have engendered the benefits of marginal gains. You do not need to be cycling for Team Sky (now Ineos) or a national sports team to benefit from marginal gains. Every athlete can benefit, no matter what sport or level of ability. The acceptance and learning from failure and the benefits of marginal gains are linked. I will cover this in a later section. This blog shows why failure is important and how a change of mindset towards not only acceptance of failure but embracing it, leads to long term success.

Throughout, I draw on sections from the great Matthew Syed’s ‘Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance’ and other publications. I come from a background in aviation, where the black box provides much of the quantitative feedback from accidents (failures) to ensure future safety (success). In his book, Syed argues that other spheres (professions, sports ..) can learn from what aviation has gone through in order to mostly eradicate regular serious accidents which were too common last century.

The feedback and use of the data during a post-event analysis helped changes in the aviation industry to significantly reduce accidents. One example is the introduction of CRM (crew resource management) to understand human interaction, especially during periods of stress and crisis. Understanding cognitive failure, which was mostly not incompetence, but the way most human brains respond to situations, allowed development of techniques such as checklists to overcome potential failures.

Such techniques can be used in sports teams so that mistakes are learnt from and errors not repeated. Although swimming is mostly an individual sport, the competitive swimmer has interactions with many people prior to a race.

What is success?

Firstly, it is important to understand what success is and more so, what failure is. A simple definition of success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. Sporting success for an individual may be Olympic gold. More importantly it is an individual goal or accomplishment which can change over time. It is very personal. It may be just beating a time against the clock or completing a course. It is not necessarily about being on the medal rostrum. Success may be not winning but arriving at the finishing line.

Success may be not winning but arriving at the finishing line

This concept is at the core of this blog. Elite sport is important and the benefits of marginal gains and learning from failure are vital to achieve sporting stardom. But most people compete at lower levels, often for fun and fitness. And the concept of learning from failure is as important to these sports people as the Olympic medalists.

Team success is similar in that it is personal to that team. The coach may identify targets at a meet for the swim team. But within that, individual successes, not just first places, may be happening throughout which can take those individuals and hence the team to higher levels. Teams have access to varying resources: training facilities, quality swimmers, support staff, etc. So, the goals and definition of success for those teams vary significantly, even for teams competing at the same event.

Some teams dominate their sports for a period of time. The Mercedes Formula 1 motor racing team have won 6 consecutive drivers championships with both drivers finishing 1-2. This pushes their achievement beyond a one or two season anomaly, beyond an exceptional year for a driver, a series of lucky victories or lack of competition from rival teams.

Mercedes F1 do have a large budget. They also have a method of working whereby a formal structure of feedback from mistakes, technical errors and failures, under-performance and competitor gains is fed back so that improvements can be made to car design, performance and reliability. It also feeds in to all the personnel within the team, not just the drivers, but the pit team, the factory engineers, race strategists and even the staff who arrange food and accommodation for the drivers.

The team will set targets (define their ‘success goals’) based on their past performance, their budget and their assessment of what is achieveable. For Mercedes F1 the target will be to win races and championships. For other teams with smaller budgets and resources, the targets will seem more modest, but they can ‘over-achieve’. This may be done by making the team greater than the sum of its parts. One element of this is defining a structure to learn. To use mistakes and failures to their advantage. To avoid a blame culture, promote openness and feedback. The more accurate the feedback from performance and the better the structure of using the data, the better the resulting success.

avoid a blame culture, promote openness and feedback

So in the pool, feedback can be technology driven, with data analysis of swimmers performance. At the moment, this is predominantly external to the swimmer, mostly with stopwatches measuring times then data input into software and analysed. The technology used by other sports people such as football and rugby players which collects individual data through a worn sensor is not widely used. So the role of data analysts and sports scientists has expanded giving quantitative feedback. Yet this is only beneficial if the data is analysed correctly and in a way that improvement can be made. More importantly, developing a culture whereby underperformance, mistakes and failure is cherished in order to improve is vital to future success.

developing a culture whereby underperformance, mistakes and failure is cherished in order to improve is vital to future success.

Human methods of feedback obviously continue to exist, especially with coaches using experience to give qualitative feedback to their swimmers.

What is failure?

Failure may be seen as not winning. Yet, as discussed regarding goal-setting for success, desired achievement levels vary very differently between different athletes. As with success, failure may be a personal assessment of achievement. Someone used to winning may see anything other than victory as failure. Yet there may be many reasons for ‘failure’ on that day: coming up against a new superior competitor, failure in equipment, the wrong diet, illness, menstrual timing for female athletes, weather or climatic changes. Or maybe the athlete just underperforms. Yet the learning from this is often far greater than the learning experience from winning.

To the lower level swimmer or sports person, failure may be not completing a training session, doing less distance than planned or, if racing, being positioned lower than hoped for. Again, these can be learning experiences which help fuel and motivate towards better training or racing in the future. It is a mindset, a mental picture, to consider underperformance as vital to better future performance.

It is a mindset, a mental picture, to consider underperformance as vital to better future performance.

One example is the highly successful swimming champion Sarah Sjostrom. She recently returned to competition after a serious arm injury and would not expect to perform at the same high levels in the initial phase of competition on return from that injury. Such ‘failure’ is important to assess the injury, to assess the body and to reacquire the sharpness to win at the highest level. This is sometimes perceived by media outlets and the wider public as failure; that the athlete will never recover to the level attained before injury. This does happen, yet more often the period of early competition post-injury is the vital building block for achieving further success, potentially greater success than before.

A classic example of improvement after injury is the former cyclist Lance Armstrong. Aside from the issues around performance enhancing drugs to gain success, especially after his recovery from various life threatening cancers, his results on return from injury were below par. This may have spurred him on to greater future success. It was not just about drug taking as he admitted to doing so before he suffered from the cancer. Yet he was not winning grand tours then. He found a way to win during that period of recuperation. The use of drugs definitely appeared to benefit his success. But also, I would argue, did his focus on marginal gains. He worked on every part of the team, the equipment, the training, the support and many other factors to gain an advantage over his competitors. That in no way condones drug taking, just this is an example of the other factors involved.

The important message here is that it is not really failure, that the thought process should be positive, not negative. The learning from setting lower goals or achieving lower performance than expected should change to a positive thought process, because that process is vital to better outcomes. The learning should be cherished. That does not mean that less effort or underperformance should be rewarded. Through training and competition, it is good to strive for the best. Achievement should be rewarded, at all levels. The message is that for the individual, or the team, underperformance is part of the learning towards success.

So success can be seen as the result of an iterative process of multiple failures. That in order to be successful, the swimmer (or athlete, team, business person) has to go through multiple failure events to learn in order to be consistently successful. Innovation similarly can be seen in this way, that multiple failures are required before success is achieved. And in sport, pushing to new levels is a form of innovation, which requires new methods of training, equipment, technique, diet, etc to get to levels beyond what was previously possible. For example in golf, focus on diet and muscle building in the gym, has taken golfers such as Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau to levels previously seen as impossible.

When teaching swimming, I encourage swimmers to experiment, to understand and learn their own movement in water; to learn what works and what does not. This learning of mini failures helps individuals improve.

Marginal Gains

This is the link to marginal gains. Be it the Mercedes F1 team or the former Team Sky cycling team, both took analysis of detail within every facet affecting the performance of their car or cyclist to extreme new levels. In Mercedes, tens of thousands of pieces of data were analysed. In Team Sky, alongside data analysis and the prime cycling elements, was emphasis on supporting factors such as streamlining of clothing and consistent diets and bedding for cyclists during a 3 week travelling cycle Grand Tour event. These small (marginal) gains added together to make the difference over competitor teams.

the constant study of the small errors or failures which allow improvement

Some of these gains came out of underperformance (or failures) identified by data analysis or by coaches and team managers. This is vital. It is the constant study of the small errors or failures which allow improvement. New methods are tested, some fail. But this constant assessment and reassessment allows improvement towards success.

What does this mean for the elite athletes?

Marginal gains have been understood in sport now for more than a decade. Teams can improve on their understanding, though resources are a significant constraint on their widespread application. Athletes can work on the many marginal factors which affect their own performance. This might be diet control, sleep patterns and regimes or avoidance of illness before competition by isolation or mask wearing.

Though the important message is that mental understanding of underperformance during training and competition, although apparently disappointing at the time, is crucial to long term, continued success.

And for triathletes/long distance swimmers?

Accurate goal-setting is a key element here for triathletes and long-distance swimmers. In endurance sport, where variables are often beyond the control of the athlete, the focus should be on individual performance against realistic goals. Underperformance or ‘failure’ may be due to external factors over which the athlete has little control.

What does this mean for the occasional or club swimmer?

This message is the most important conclusion from this blog. Whilst it may seem that marginal gains and success are the realms of the elite swimmer or successful athlete, try to learn that ‘failure’ is a positive outcome towards future enjoyment and ‘success’. Changing to a positive mindset which cherishes taking part and learning the sport, whatever the ‘result’.

Improvement occurs when the individual learns from trying correct and incorrect methods and understands which is best. Improvement occurs when the individual is motivated by sub-optimal outcomes. Success is the result of learning from a long series of failures.

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