Dealing with Personal Failure

The London Olympics are in full swing at the moment and – amazingly – we are doing very well. It is really quite surprising what the home advantage is doing for our athletes. When I say ‘we’ of course, I am referring to Team GB. However, in this post I wanted to deal with an aspect of the mindset of the champion that I noticed as a result of one of our athletes losing an event he thought he was going to win.

It is the double skulls event to which I am referring and our team of Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase came second to Denmark (well done to Mads Rasmussen and Rasmus Quist). After the race, both of the British athletes were devastated and I heard Mark Hunter actually apologising for ‘letting people down’. As I watched, I thought that it was quite an astonishing thing to hear someone apologising for winning an Olympic silver medal. But it started me thinking about the mindset of a champion and what it takes to win at the highest level.

When I think about it, it is not really an isolated case of someone being extremely dissatisfied with coming second. The F.A. Cup – one of the premier events of the U.K football calendar – produces a winner and a runner-up every year. When the runners-up are interviewed, they do not generally feel pleased that they managed to get to Wembley; they are usually completely deflated and disappointed about losing the big game. Many Premiereship footballers repeatedly state that coming second is no kind of honour – it is all about winning.

Comparing the reaction to the winning of the silver medal (by Hunter and Purchase) with Rebecca Adlington’s reaction following the winning of her two bronze medals, I am struck by similarity and difference. At the previous Olympics in Beijing, Becky had won two gold medals in the same events so, this time out, British expectations were high. Following her first bronze, Becky said she was delighted that she had won a medal and pleased with her performance. However, after the second bronze, it was a disappointed Becky who was beaten by the American 15 year-old (well done Katie Ledecky).

Similarly, the British gymnastic team, who almost won a silver medal but for the (justified) protest of Japan, were ultimately delighted to have won bronze. So what is it that makes the difference? Why should one person, or team, be delighted with a bronze medal and someone else be disappointed? It is, of course, all down to expectations or, to put it another way, belief. Champions, come what may, expect to win. Both Becky and the double skulls team (Hunter and Purchase) expected to win because they were the incumbent champions for their events and so they can only see their current achievements in terms of failure. In time, perhaps they may gain a proper perspective on what they have achieved.

Failure is something that anyone who is trying to achieve big goals must inevitably face. As some wise person once said, ‘show me someone who has never failed and I will show you someone who has never tried’.

Leave a Reply