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Failure is Necessary to Learn, Improve and Grow as an Athlete

by ZwemZa on September 27th, 2019

It’s all been for this moment. All the work you’ve put in this season, all of the 6 a.m. practices, all of the training sessions in the gym, and all of the sacrifices you’ve made have led you to this point – standing behind the block, suited up, and tapered to swim your best in the final meet of the season. Championship/Trials cuts are on the line, so it’s time to put all of your hard work to the test and perform your best.

However, things don’t go according to plan. For whatever reason, you’re just not able to put anything together. Your stroke feels heavy, your legs seem like they’re tied in a knot, and you can’t get a good feel for the water at all. As a consequence, you don’t perform anywhere near your best. You go on to miss the Championship/Trials cuts you were aiming for, and in the immediate moment, it feels like all that work you did all season ended up being for nothing. Naturally, you feel extremely disappointed, perhaps even a bit angry or emotionally upset.

I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, and I know it hurts, but trust me – this experience is necessary. Failure is necessary.

No one likes to fail. And, failing never feels great on an emotional level. That goes without saying. However, as much as you don’t want to fail, and as bad as failure can feel, the simple fact of the matter is that failure is necessary. You need it. It’s good for you, and it’s an inevitable aspect of the sport that you are guaranteed to experience at different points throughout your career.

Why is failure necessary? Why do you need it? Why is it good for you? Well, let’s take a look, shall we?

1. Failure is the only way to learn, improve, and grow.

Bobby Guntoro is an associate head coach for the NC State Swimming & Diving team, an NCAA Division I powerhouse program that has come on huge leaps and bounds over the past several years. Bobby once said this:

“It’s okay to fail. It’s good to fail in practice. It means you push your limit. Quitting isn’t failing.”

This might sound odd, but your objective as a swimmer isn’t actually to win anything. Winning is just a by-product of maximum performance. Your true objective is to achieve higher and higher levels of maximum performance over time, as it’s achieving higher levels of maximum performance over time that allows you to win things. Achieving higher levels of maximum performance over time is only possible when you learn, grow, and improve as a swimmer. And, learning, growing, and improving as a swimmer is only made possible through failure.

Learning, growth, and improvement don’t come from success. They come from failing. It comes from pushing yourself past what you think are your physical limitations, trying new things, and allowing yourself to make mistakes, because in doing so, you expose any weaknesses or shortcomings you may have that need correcting. You can’t know or realize where you need to improve unless you fail and mess up so that a light can be shown on those faults. Through failing, you’re now able to work on those faults and give yourself the opportunity to grow into a better swimmer and become a better version of yourself than you were before.

2. Failure gives meaning to success.

Do you know why a new personal best time feels so good? It has nothing to do with the numbers themselves. They’re just digital lights that pop up on a screen. Objectively, they have no meaning. A personal best time feels so good and those numbers on the board mean something to you because they serve as a representation of the hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and most importantly, persistence through failure that you’ve gone through to get to that point.

In the immediate moment you see that new best time, you feel that rush of euphoria and overwhelming joy because, on a sub-conscious level, you recognize what it took to get that time and the moments of mental and physical pain it took to achieve it. That’s why it feels so good. The same is true when you win a medal. It’s not the medal itself that brings you happiness. It’s just a hunk of metal fastened to a ribbon. The medal represents all of the resilience you showed in fighting through the bad practices, poor meets, and difficult days where you felt like quitting. That’s what gives that medal meaning.

Without failure, success wouldn’t mean anything. It would just be hollow. A time on a board wouldn’t hold any significance and a medal around your neck wouldn’t make you feel anything. Those things only make you feel something of significance because they serve as a representation of the mental fortitude you showed through the hard times, the difficult moments, the practices where you fell short, and the meets where you weren’t your best. Failure is what makes success worth fighting for and achieving.

3. Failure is what keeps you swimming.

If all you ever did was succeed in swimming, what do you think would eventually happen? If you won every single race you swam in, swam a personal best time in every event, and constantly blew away the competition without ever experiencing any kind of loss or failure, do you know how you’d start to feel? I can tell you – you’d get bored out of your mind. You’d start losing interest in the sport. Why? Because that’s how we human beings are designed. We’re constantly looking for new challenges, new milestones, and new frontiers.

For example, if you were to win a race, how you would prefer to win? Would you prefer it to be a completely boring race with zero challenge where you just blew away the competition without having to put in any real effort? That wouldn’t feel any good. It wouldn’t mean anything because you didn’t even have to test yourself and your abilities. Or, would you prefer to win by being forced to swim to your absolute maximum and barely out-touch the competition to the wall by hundredths of a second? That kind of win always feels so much better. That’s because it means something. You had to fight for it. You had to earn it.

I hope you succeed in the future. I want you to. I’ll be rooting you. However, never forget that failure will come. You can’t prevent it or stop it. However, when it does come, you can give yourself the power to bounce back from it quickly by reminding yourself that failure is a necessary and beneficial component of your journey towards swimming success, and more importantly, becoming a better version of yourself, both as a swimmer and as a human being.

Will Jonathan is a Sports Mental Coach with an extensive background working in the world of Age-Group, NCAA, International, and Professional Swimming. His past and present clients include Age-Group National Champions, NCAA All-Americans, University Swim programs, and International Swimmers competing for their countries at competitions such as the World Championships and the Olympics. He worked previously as the Mental Skills Coach for the Florida State University Swim team and is the author of the swimming psychology book “The Swimmer’s Mind – Mastering The Mental Side Of Swimming”, which can be found both at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, both online and in stores nationwide.

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