Shin guards used to only be worn by those on mountain bikes or by people playing soccer. Now, they are marketed to crossfit athletes and many powerlifters. Why is that? Because when you are doing box jumps you can have a missed rep and hit your shin on the wood or metal frame. The same is true for when you are using a barbell to do your heavy deadlifts. A barbell can scrape against your lower leg and sometimes lead to bleeding. OUCH! I find it interesting that people feel the need to use a sock, sleeve or guard for protection while working out in the gym. The shin guard doesn’t lead to more success in powerlifting and certainly doesn’t mean you will improve at Crossfit. How could someone learn to lift their feet high enough when jumping or realize that their barbell deadlifts are getting sloppy because they are fatigued if they are always protected from the pain of their mistakes? I see pain as a teacher and I also view our failures as valuable and necessary components for success in all areas of life.
Below I am going to outline five ways to reframe failure in order to utilize it as a driver of success.
“There are articles and books galore on ways to succeed. There are a lot of words about pressing on and pursuing excellence. But rarely are words offered up about the goodness of failing.”
When a toddler is learning how to walk they will have many failed attempts before they get it right. In the beginning nearly every attempt ends with them landing on their butts or catching themselves with their hands out in front of them. This is actually how the brain learns about the body's capabilities. In early development the human system is using its five senses to interpret and navigate the external environment. The toddler in this case is using its sense of touch under the feet to find the ground and its sight to target in on a mom or dad. These mistakes of walk then fall, step then plop, step step then tumble are helping the body and brain create a robust sensory system. Watch how babies get back up and continue to try again and again and again. These little ones have zero fear of failing and are actually embracing it until one day they become mini adults walking around all by themselves without holding on to anything or anyone. If it wasn’t for these minor errors and multiple attempts at the gait cycle then we would all still be crawling on the floor. This is why failure acts as an important feedback loop to help us navigate rising after failing. This can lead to heightened focus and clarity because of our previous experience and aids in us doing it better the next time around.
If you have ever cooked you might understand this concept best. Every time I have decided to cook a new dish I try to follow a recipe so I have a basic understanding of what to do and what I need. I might watch a youtube video or look up something from one of my cookbooks to get inspired. Then I throw on my apron and I get my knives, cutting boards, and pans. In an attempt to reduce my wheat intake, I have learned that using arrowroot is not a good substitute for white flour. Even though I have cooked meat a million different times I have still made the mistake of over cooking it and drying it out. In fact sometimes it’s not until the third or fourth attempt do I find that I have my timing and temperatures and everything all figured out that the dish turns out delicious. It is these previous attempts at this new recipe that help shape and dictate what things I will adjust or change in order to get it all just right. You can read books and do research. You can watch videos and observe how to do something. You can pay someone to be a mentor or sign up for an apprenticeship, and sure, these are wise investments yet it’s only through trial and error that you discover what works and what doesn’t. For me, cooking has cultivated creativity and has given me many lessons that I might not otherwise understand by simply reading about it in a cookbook.
I have done it before and I know you have too. I’ve had an accident in yoga where I tore a muscle while doing some complicated flow sequence. I am not interested in blaming the teacher for her complex set of postures, instead I used my torn hamstring as an opportunity to learn about my blindspots in my body. It didn’t take long for my muscle to heal and since then I have been focused on strengthening my left side. I realized after that class just how mismatched and unbalanced I was from left to right. This is an example of using insight and reflection to drive me to seek out more stability and balance within my body. Though I failed at loading and weight transfer to my left hip in that yoga class many years ago, I chose to see it as an opportunity to dive deeper into my training program. I used this lesson to literally build strength back where I hadn’t yet realized it was missing. This is why failure helps you deal with challenges in a positive way and cultivates strength both physically and mentally.
We have a game we play at Rooted in MVMNT. It’s one of our “longevity games” that we play with some of our silver sneakers population to help them improve their flexibility and overall mobility of their joints. The gist of it is like this: each player must start on the floor either on their back or belly, the coach gives an instruction as to how to get back up to a standing position > such as “get up without using your left hand” or “try getting to your feet while keeping your right thumb glued to your forehead”. The object of the game is to create a constraint or a scenario in which they can’t use all 4 limbs to get from horizontal back to vertical. This game is instrumental in teaching people about how to be clever if they fall or how to hold on to their grandchild or a toy while getting up from the floor. It changes the narrative of making older persons feel weak and empowers them to be creative and innovative.
Thomas Edison attempted over 2000 times to invent the lightbulb. He is quoted as saying “I have not failed 10,000 times. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” That is a great representation of his perspective on failure. Each attempt was significant to his final invention and he learned something each time he tried to get it right. Just like my client's multiple attempts at getting up from the floor, Edison’s mindset and outlook on his failed inventions forced him to be creative and come up with new solutions.
Way back in 2010 I set a goal of wanting to save money for a summer vacation. I set up an automatic deposit into my savings account from my checking account. Everything was going great and I was feeling confident about how easy it was to automate stashing money away for a special occasion. After about 6 months my income changed significantly and I couldn’t afford to keep my automatic deposits up. I was so elated to have finally started this savings account that I actually used the loss of my income as motivation to keep my goal alive. At first I was a bit discouraged at how much less I would be able to save, but I decided that adjusting the amount was better than nothing and reminded myself that I could revisit my situation six months later when I thought I would have a new higher paying job. Some people would have just quit and succumb to never being able to afford a vacation. I did the opposite, I simply adjusted the amount and kept on. Instead of being upset about my job and my income it inspired me to seek out something new and different and push to accept something that had higher wages. It’s the same thing inside of the gym. Each set of squats I do I try to do as many as I can. Some days I have strength for 10 reps at 135 pounds and some days I can only do 7 or 8, but each week I come back to my squats and I try again. I simply used the technique of adjusting to where I am at for that day but I never let it stop me from squatting. This is a perfect example of enduring through it. Life will throw us obstacles from time to time, but flipping our perspective can help us endure those hiccups and lead to a heightened sense of resiliency.
Ok, let's recap!
Failure is good because it gives us feedback as to what didn’t work and guides us towards a new solution. Failing when trying gives us a deeper understanding and teaches us to learn from our mistakes. While I try to coach my clients on how to move optimally and efficiently so that they can have a high amount of success in the gym, the most valuable learning moments come from their inherent missed reps and mistakes made when attempting to learn new movement patterns. The clients that struggle the most are the ones that carry to much pride and are unwilling to admit they fumbled. This fear of failing is what holds many people back from overall growth. My goals is to teach them to how to be comfortable with making mistakes and leaning into the idea that failing is just a part of the whole experience. I try to demonstrate to them how this gives us greater chances for success in almost anything they do or try.
I'll leave you with this great quote from Napoleon Hill,
“Failure is a blessing or a curse, depending on whether you react to it as a stumbling block or a stepping stone. The nature of your reaction is under your exclusive control.”
- Coach Paige Fleischmann
Strength Coach, Movement Specialist, Yoga Therapist