Learn From Failure And Become A Top Performer

AT some stage you will fail. You will have the experience of not reaching the target you were aiming for or not achieving the outcome you had planned.

Failure is inevitable, it is part of the process of moving forward, growing up, improving our performance. We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. In a culture which is enamoured with the winner, we stand to lose the valuable lessons found in failure.

So what do you do when you fail?

If we understand failure as a learning opportunity it makes sense to think about it in terms of the “learning cycle”. There are many ways to explain the cycle of learning – I have chosen to use the one developed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford.

Here’s how the learning cycle rolls out:

  1. Doing something, having an experience
  2. Reflecting on the experience
  3. Concluding from the experience, developing a theory
  4. Planning the next steps, to apply or test the theory

So let’s say in training for a race you fail to achieve the expected times. You know you can get them, you just aren’t doing it.

So the experience, the “doing” part of the cycle is training and not achieving the expected time.

The next stage is to reflect on that experience, to think about it. This is the start of the learning process. Merely doing something is not learning. Learning starts when we begin to reflect on what happened.

In this case the reflection could be: “I failed to achieve the time”, or “I didn’t get off the starting blocks quick enough”, or something similar.

Something I have learned from high performance athletes is that it is important to acknowledge the failure. In general life coaching it is easy to “fudge” the issue slightly, to downplay the failure or to point out that it wasn’t as bad as the person thinks.

In sport, particularly with high performance athletes, the failure is obvious. You can’t argue with the stop watch, the measuring tape or the scoreboard. And I have found it important to acknowledge, without a sugar-coating, the fact of the failure. “Yes, you didn’t run as fast as you could have”. It is not a judgement or a put-down. It’s a fact. That forms part of the reflection.

The next step is critical. Here is when we make conclusions based on our reflection. It is at this point where the danger of self-recrimination and negative self-talk rears itself. Thoughts such as “I’m a failure”, “I will never be as good as… “, “I think I should give up”, begin to arise. These are, of course, not usually valid conclusions. Valid conclusion consider what happened and why. “I didn’t get the time because I haven’t perfected my style”, or “I have gained weight and that is slowing me down”.

Once we have made our conclusions, in other words once we have understood what happened and why, we can then begin to build a plan of action to improve the performance. From the examples given above the athlete might want to have focused coaching on style or consult a dietician to overcome the impediments to their best performance.

The cycle then returns to the start again, at “Doing”, so that the plan can be put into action and then reassessed through the learning cycle again.

The “Planning” and “Doing” parts of the cycle are critical as it is in these phases that forward movement toward better performance takes place.

However, if at the “Conclusion” stage negative self-talk and recrimination takes place, the tendency is to move back into reflection rather than forward into action. A “sub-loop” develops bouncing back and forth between “Reflection” and “Conclusion”, each driving the other further down the path of negativity. At this point the person lapses into rumination, rather than learning and moving forward to planning and improved action.

It is the fear of entering into this sub-loop of negativity that prevents people honestly acknowledging their failure. In my own experience I have noticed that whenever I have soft-pedalled on the failure it is because I am afraid my client will go into this negative spin. But that is not a helpful response. Without the courage to fully own and explore the failure the fullest learning from the experience will never be gained.

The better way is to own and acknowledge the failure, do the full reflection on it, draw honest conclusions and then ask the question: “So what will I do differently in future?”

Once that question has been answered and a plan formulated, the failure can then be consigned to the past and forgotten. Memories of failure have no further purpose once the learning from them has been extracted and implemented. Then they must be put down and the focus placed on moving forward to planning and improved action.