You are at once the quite and the confusion of my heart – wrote Franz Kafka. I think athletes would agree with this when thinking about their chosen sport.
A swimmer told me once that being in the pool was her peaceful place, where she felt most herself and safest. Others feel the same: they are most comfortable with a cricket bat in hand or walking onto the track feels like coming home. Sport is the quite of their heart.
However, sport can also cause great emotional upheaval and confusion, throwing hearts into disarray.
As we have watched some of the worlds best athletes compete at the recent Commonwealth Games, many of us celebrated alongside those that reached their goals (I must admit that I almost get more of a thrill seeing someone celebrate a bronze medal than I do a gold – it reminds me that winning is not the only definition of success). But what about those that didn’t achieve what they set out to? What about those who left Australia disappointed or devastated? Sport is not a quiet place for their hearts at the moment.
It’s so easy to tell these athletes that ‘You have to fail to succeed’ or ‘You will be stronger for this’ or ‘Use this as motivation for next time’. We want to quickly brush over the feelings of failure, tell them to be optimistic and get them back on track as fast as possible.
The problem is that this approach neglects to address the very real hurt they feel. As Brené Brown1 would say, it is gold-plating grit.
“To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them so important: toughness, doggedness and perseverance”.
She goes on to say that failure in itself is not refining, it’s in the process of finding your emotional footing again in the midst of heartache and struggle where the real growth takes place.
We cannot afford to fetishize ‘failing forward’ and turn optimism it into something that it is not (hint: it is not a Pollyanna ‘just be positive’ kind of thinking). You always have to acknowledge the pain and hurt that comes from falling short in performance and give athletes a space to sort through these emotions. Only through this struggle can they test their courage and, yes, learn from failure.
- Brené Brown: Rising Strong