Conehead: Learning from Failure

Embrace mistakes and everything they have to offer

High Performance Manager Darren Roberts discusses what we can learn from failing (just not failing all the time!).

Photos: Sebastian Schieck, lead photo (above) Mike Rose

Creating an environment where it’s OK to fail is entirely counterintuitive to high performance cultures and systems, it’s avoided at all costs because it’s, well, failure. This creates a bit of a problem for me, because if we aren’t continually failing then how are we learning and progressing? From the physical, emotional, to the technical – if we’re not pushing boundaries and failing at the limit of our capacities, we’re not learning are we? When you spend as much time with action sports athletes as I do, failure becomes a key and fundamental foundation on what all learning progresses from. You only have to watch the ‘out takes’ of most action sports film projects to see this in action – the constant and often eye watering painful failures.

Coming second place at a World Cup race (like Troy Brosnan here in Cairns) is no mean feat, and it would be hard to see it as a failure, but for racers at the top of their game there is only really one position they want to be in… first.

However this determination needs to extend throughout the whole performance preparation of an athlete, not just trying to get over the big line for the 300th time that day. Failure needs to feature in everything, so not only does the athlete have key learnings, but being able to understand that failure and the learning process from it to move forward. This is also a key preparatory factor for competition, because it’s not always going to go well for an athlete in competition, and as I always say “it’s easy when you’re winning”. The athlete who has only known success through the many levels of competition can rapidly become unstuck when confronted with this new experience… failure.

Creating an environment where it’s “OK to fail” in sport where results are everything, is extremely difficult. But therein is the art, it’s not impossible to do – just very difficult. This isn’t to say you’re creating a culture where it “doesn’t matter” if something goes wrong, doesn’t go as planned or results aren’t what they should have been or expected – being “ok” to fail is not to be confused with “doesn’t matter”. Everything matters. Environments, processes and systems that not only encourage failure, but should have the robustness and education so the athlete can get the most from it. It’s an entirely positive and empowering experience for the athlete – a treasure trove of information, if managed correctly by all parties and everyone is part of the learning process.

Loic Bruni was seemingly always going to be the World Cup bridesmaid (and never the bride!). But in late April 2016 he finally did it, taking the win in Cairns Australia. He has always been gracious in defeat, and will certainly have learned from every one of his races.

By embracing failure and everything it has to offer, rather than running from it, you develop tools, resilience and strategies which all contribute towards making the athlete comfortable with being uncomfortable across the whole spectrum of their performance. It’s a key step in accountability, always asking the difficult questions and focusing on the how and why, not just the what. Again, this isn’t to be confused with apportioning blame or whose “fault” anything is. Fear of failure, whilst possibly can be motivating to a point, in my opinion it can eventually become debilitating and distracting to what the athlete wants to achieve.

The life of a racer can be a tough one, and having the mental strength as well as the physical grit is key to success. Being able to pick yourself up and learn from your mistakes is not easy, but if you manage to acquire that skill it can pay dividends, both on and off the bike.

Some fairly abstract concepts, and ultimately it’s an element of a culture you’re trying to nurture. But everything in sport and performance is about people, not just results, regardless of whether it’s good results or bad results. The only real “failure” is something you don’t learn from, and repeat the same problem again. Like me being told to stop for milk on way home, and maintaining my 100% record in not doing that…

Darren ‘Conehead’ Roberts is High Performance Manager at Harris & Ross Healthcare. He’s been working with some of the UK’s and world’s biggest household names in extreme sports for nearly 15 years.


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