How to Fail
My MMA coach, LA Jennings, asked if I would speak to a group of fighters about mentally preparing for competition. For 8 weeks leading up to their fight, they enter “fight camp,” in which diet is monitored, training intensifies, and the roller coaster of hope and fear begins. So on a Sunday afternoon in LA and Mike’s home, after the hungry athletes housed all of her fight-camp-approved snacks, we settled into the living room for a chat.
With competition looming just a few weeks ahead, I asked what they struggle with during this time. One person spoke about freezing in the cage and finding himself unable to execute the simplest kicks. Another talked about negative self-talk, and the ritual of journaling after her workouts to track her thoughts.
When someone spoke about the crushing anxiety of failing, of letting down supporters and coaches, and disappointing themselves with a tremendous loss, many silent heads nodded. Everyone in the room knew this weight.
Failing hurts. It brings many emotions we would rather not feel, such as embarrassment and shame. Many of us go to great lengths to avoid failure so that we don’t have to feel these emotions. And yet, if we choose to live bravely, failing is inevitable. You could argue that keeping yourself safe enough to never fail is a failure in itself.
The New York Times Magazine recently featured Nobukazu Kuriki, who died in 2018 during his eighth attempt to summit Mount Everest. The article highlighted his joyful embrace of failure. “He shared the same lesson, over and over: Risks could be accepted because failure could be accepted.”
“The world of climbing mountains is crazy by nature,” Kuriki wrote in a Facebook post titled “No Crazy, No Mountain.” “And there is something I want to tell everyone: ‘Please cherish the craziness that we all have within ourselves.’ ”
Our culture celebrates success, rather than highlighting the epic journey it required, filled with upsets and failures.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan
How to Get Back Up
All fighters lose. Advanced fighters do so with grace, then get back in the gym to learn from their mistakes. Are they disappointed? Perhaps even sad and lethargic? Sure. But they lean on their coaches and community to train through their weak spots and learn from the invaluable ring experience.
Failing feels bad. Whether it’s losing a fight, being denied a promotion at work, or ending a relationship, we all go through it. Some have larger impacts than others. Knowing how to fail and embrace the moment as an opportunity allows us to take greater risks.
- Embrace those feelings. Anxiety, sadness, and shame can be so uncomfortable! However, the fastest way through it is to feel it. Talk it out with loved ones or a therapist, and let the feelings take their course. Trying to fight them off can actually make them stronger.
- Practice healthy coping skills. I’m a big fan of meditation – watching our thoughts and feelings pass by without doing anything to change them. Your special blend of coping skills are unique to you, and it can help to keep a list around in case you forget. Call a friend, walk a dog, listen to music, take a bubble bath, ride a rollercoaster, work out, read a novel, take up a new hobby, etc.
- Notice irrational beliefs about failure. Do you think that failing makes you bad, or means that you’ll never succeed? If you think you’re hopeless, remember this: I can handle failure, I can learn from my mistakes, failing is a sign that I’m challenging myself. This could be a good time to research famous failures.
If you’re struggling to recover after failing, consider finding a therapist. We all need a helping hand at times in our lives, and therapy can help you bounce back.
“Boxing is a sport of self-control. You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you… Fear is a friend of exceptional people.”
– Cus D’Amato
For Further Exploration:
Coping with Failure