WELLNESS
08/01/2016 05:50 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2016

3 Things Failure Can Teach You About Success, According To These Athletes

Failure is an opportunity, not the end of the road.
Lex Gillette of the US lands in the sand during the final of the men's long jump F11 classification event at the 2008 Beijing
AFP via Getty Images
Lex Gillette of the US lands in the sand during the final of the men's long jump F11 classification event at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games in Beijing on September 15, 2008. 

In a few weeks, athletes from around the world will perform almost super-human feats of strength and agility at the 2016 Rio Olympics and Paralympics. When they win, their shiny faces will beam with joy and pride as the flags are lowered and their national anthems blare on the loudspeakers.

And they’ll owe a lot of their success not to past victories, but to past failures.

While it may seem counterintuitive, failing to reach the goals you set for yourself may actually set the stage for future success ― provided you have a perspective that helps you view your past losses as lessons, not as omens of more failure to come.

Failure could help you face your fears.

Lex Gillette of the United States competes in the men's long jump T11 final during the Morning Session on Day Six of the IPC
Warren Little via Getty Images
Lex Gillette of the United States competes in the men's long jump T11 final during the Morning Session on Day Six of the IPC Athletics World Championships at Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium on October 27, 2015 in Doha, Qatar.

We all know what it feels like to fail. If we set a goal and don’t achieve it, we feel sad, embarrassed, dejected and discouraged. We may even feel paralyzed by the loss or try to convince ourselves that the goal isn’t worth achieving.

But research on resilience suggests that grit and perseverance in the face of obstacles may be just as strong a predictor of success as intelligence, and that the most successful people are those who pursue their goals with stamina. Related research on a growth mindset similarly claims that children who believe intelligence is not solely innate and can be developed tend to succeed more in class. 

In both cases, a person’s approach to mistakes and failure is a crucial part of how these traits play out in the real world. If one has a growth mindset, hardships are an opportunity to learn. If one is resilient, mistakes and failures are lessons that can be improved upon. And this seems to be the case for elite athletes, too.

Lex Gillette, 31, is a highly decorated long jumper who will represent the U.S. in this year’s Paralympics. He’s won a silver medal in each of the three past Paralympic events in which he’s competed, and won gold in the 2013 and 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships. He’s also completely blind, having lost his eyesight around 8 years old. He’s no stranger to obstacles, which is perhaps why believes so strongly that the best athletes build from their failures.

“Failing at something is essential, in my eyes,” Gillette said at a recent event sponsored by 24 Hour Fitness gyms, for which he helped design a “Team USA Bootcamp” program. “You go through some sort of hardship or something, and it helps catapult you to a higher level.”

Case in point: last year’s IPC Athletics World Championships. In order to sprint hundreds of feet and catapult himself into a pit of sand, Gillette first walks with his coach and guide around the area and the boundaries of the sand pit, to give him a chance to mentally visualize the space. It almost always works, but for some reason that year in Doha, it just didn’t. Instead of landing in the middle of the sand pit like he usually does, Gillette landed, hard, on one of the concrete sides.

“For me I would consider that a moment of failure,” Gillette recalled. “I was definitely confused because it’s something that doesn’t happen to me often.”

“But it was one of those things where I told myself that I’ve had a number of failures in my life, and I’ve been able to tap into that inner strength in order to come back and be resilient,” he continued.

He did so with flying colors. Just 15 minutes later,  Gillette achieved his best jump at the competition, and he ended up taking the gold.

“I can’t see anything, but it doesn’t scare me at all,” he said. “I have this vision of me going to the Paralympics and winning the gold. And I see those [failures] as stepping stones and things that I’ve had to do to get to my destination.”

Michelle Segar, a motivation scientist and director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan, noted that Gillette’s story may be an example of an athlete facing his worst fear: landing on the side of the sand pit instead of in it. Indeed, in describing what happened, Gillette said that landing on the concrete might have given doubters a reason to believe that visually impaired people can’t excel at the long jump, a high-velocity event that requires athletes to hit two targets: the jumping board and the sand pit.

But once that fear actually came true, Gillette may have been unburdened by the fear and anxiety he normally has about his events, Segar guessed.

“Research shows that when people are in an achievement mindset, it can create stress, which really detracts from focus,” she said. “Once you don’t have that fear over your head anymore, then you can really focus.” 

Failure can fuel motivation.

Cortney Jordan, of the United States, right, celebrates her gold medal in the Women's 50m Freestyle S7 with team mate and sil
AP Photo/Greg Baker
Cortney Jordan, of the United States, right, celebrates her gold medal in the Women's 50m Freestyle S7 with team mate and silver medalist Erin Popovich at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games in Beijing Sunday Sept 14, 2008.

A qualitative 2015 study interviewed 10 Olympic gold medalists across a variety of sports about setbacks like repeatedly failing to be selected for a team, serious injury and even the death of a family member. It found that these elite athletes considered the failures as essential factors that contributed directly to winning their gold medals.

“Interestingly, the majority of participants stated that if they had not underperformed at a previous Olympics, they would not have won their gold medals,” the researchers wrote in their study. They hypothesized that learning from previous failure happened in two ways: the athletes focused on why they were feeling distressing emotions, not the emotions themselves, and they also distanced themselves psychologically from the negative experience.

“Both of these mental processes enabled a ‘cool’ reflective processing of negative emotions whereby individuals could make sense of their experience without reactivating excessive ‘hot’ negative affect,” they concluded.  

Cortney Jordan, 25, can certainly relate. Jordan, a Paralympic swimmer who was born with cerebral palsy, claims to not “believe” in failure. But it also has a special place in her heart, because it helped her win her only gold Paralympic medal so far — the 50 meter freestyle in Beijing in 2008.

After placing fourth in the 100 meter backstroke in Beijing and ninth in the 50 meter butterfly, Jordan was dejected. She had missed medaling in backstroke by three one-hundredths of a second. And placing ninth in the 50 meter butterfly meant she didn’t even qualify for the final swim in that event.

But the next day, she swam the 50 meter freestyle race and won gold. She said she owed the medal to her two losses from the day before.

“I was so motivated by my failure that I was able to use it to fuel my desire to win,” she told HuffPost at the same 24 Hour Fitness event.

“Failure is a perception, and it’s not permanent,” she continued. “Every time I haven’t achieved a goal I’ve set out to do, I just kind of use that as an opportunity to think about what went wrong and use it to propel myself toward success and the future.”

Mark Aoyagi, a director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver who specializes in working with professional and Olympic athletes, works with his clients to reframe failure in the same way that Jordan does.

“We actually do a lot of work around reconceptualizing failure: investing in your sport, putting yourself out there in competition and giving it your all is necessary for growth and development,” he said. “Thus, if you do this process and happen to not get the results, that is not failure ― that is learning.”

According to this definition of “failure,” the only way to truly fail would be to not do anything at all — whether it be fail to properly prepare, fail to put it all out there on competition day or fail to learn from past experiences, he said.

“[Failure] has nothing to do with whether or not you happen to get the result you are looking for on a particular day,” Aoyagi concluded. “ Use that information to go back and practice and improve and put it on the line again in the next competition.”

Failure is what you make of it.

Examples of failure that lead to even greater heights are exciting and easily understood when it comes to the world of athletics. But these ideas have resonance in science, business, education and other arenas as well.

Famous examples of mistakes and initial failures that led to breakthroughs include the invention of penicillin, which Sir Alexander Fleming discovered in a discarded lab dish from an old experiment, and the development of the pacemaker, which Wilson Greatbatch developed when trying to make a heart rhythm recording device. 

“There is often the notion that ‘failure’ (as defined by not getting the promotion, not getting into your top school, etc.) means you ‘don’t have what it takes’ to be successful in whatever arena the failure occurred,” Aoyagi said.

But what this conception of failure misses is that mistakes or missteps are what you make of them.

“Failure and success are quite relative, and what seems to be a failure in the short run can often lead to success,” he concluded. “Moreover, it is often an essential ingredient to success, as these [Paralympians] talked about.”

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