Failure in Sports
April 5, 2010, 2:18 pm
Filed under: Life | Tags: , , , , ,

So I got really into March Madness this year. I spent an entire day researching my bracket, and watched every single game that I could. I picked a favourite (Ohio State) and I picked a goat (Duke) and I cheered hard for the former and I jeered harder at the latter.

Of course, if you’ve been following the tournament, you know how well that worked out for me – Ohio State lost to Tennessee in their Sweet Sixteen game and tonight, Duke plays Butler for the championship (and I suspect Duke is going to win). Sucks to be me.

This reminds me, though, that sports can teach you a lot. Playing sports, like art, is one of those pursuits that often has to struggle to justify its existence to a society obsessed with pragmatism. Sports, like art, are often seen as frivolous ways to spend leisure time, things you only do when you’ve finished being useful to society and have a few hours to kill. But sports are extremely valuable and are worth supporting and pursuing, benefitting both individuals and groups/societies.

So with that in mind, I’d like to share with you two of the more useful lessons I’ve personally learned from sports and, since my NCAA bracket is so spectacularly busted, I”m going to make them lessons about failure.

If you think you’re going to fail, you’ll probably fail. So don’t.

This winter, I went snowboarding with a few friends of mine. Early into the trip, we found a bunch of glade runs (runs that haven’t been cleared of trees, rocks, etc.) and this is where we spent most of our time. While navigating one of these runs, I had a bit of an “aha” moment when I realized that I was playing things entirely too safe and that I’d be a much better snowboarder if I stopped worrying so much about not running into things. Since most people would think that “Don’t run into things” would be one of the first rules of snowboarding, this might seem a bit counter-intuitive – I’ll explain.

It’s a general principle of snowboarding that you either commit or you don’t bother. Whether you’re approaching a jump, dodging trees, or just doing some basic freeriding, you are less likely to fall and/or injure yourself if you approach your ride with confidence. If you try to ride tentatively, you instinctively start to shift your weight backwards (which puts you off-balance and out of position to make good turns quickly) and are more likely to fall or bail out (i.e., fall on purpose to “save” yourself). The impact of this is even greater when you’re riding glades – glades require you to make short, sharp, hard turns and if you bail (on purpose or otherwise), chances are you’re going to smack into something.

Sometimes, then, the best way to do a glade run is to simply huck yourself down the mountain and trust yourself to find a way to not die. You’d be amazed at what you can come up with in the heat of the moment if you have a bit of faith in your abilities, and – instead of giving up when you think you might fall – keep focussed and keep charging.

Now, I’m not suggesting that people ride above their ability or do anything reckless – and I do recommend a helmet. But if you give up on something just because you’re not 100% sure you’re going to succeed at it, then chances are that not only will you fall, you’ll hit a tree on the way down. If you trust yourself to find a way to win, then it’s a lot more likely that you will.

Failure doesn’t hurt as much as you think it will and it’s usually worth the risk

For the last few years of university I played kendo, a Japanese martial art that involves one-on-one combat with bamboo “swords” (originally used to train people in samurai sword fighting). As fun as kendo is, it’s pretty intimidating for the uninitiated, since it typically involves someone dressed in medieval-looking armour running at you, screaming, and trying to hit you with a big stick.

The thought of getting hit in the face with a stick – and believe me, you do get hit in kendo – can be pretty scary. But I believe that experiencing it can be valuable and that getting hit for the first time is one of the most important moments in a kendo career – I’ll explain.

Getting hit in kendo is never nearly as bad as you think it’s going to be. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t tickle – but before you experience it for the first time, it’s easy to build up the experience in your head to the point where you think that getting hit is going to be seriously traumatic.

Once you take – and shake off – that first shot to the head, you start to realize that, unpleasant though it is, getting hit is far from being the worst thing in the world. Not only that, it’s necessary to win – defensive strategies will get you ties, but they won’t score you too many points, which means that you have to be willing to go on the attack in order to win, which generally leaves you more exposed to attack from your opponent.

In other words, you need to risk getting hit in order to succeed, which is much easier when you realize that getting hit doesn’t hurt nearly as much as you think it will, and it certainly doesn’t hurt as much as losing because you were too afraid to take a risk.

The same, I think, is true of life. It’s no secret that fear of failure can be extremely paralyzing and it’s partly because the experience of failing is so built-up in people’s minds that they’re not willing to take risks. So they play it safe, and live boring, unsatisfying lives. But taking risks – and sometimes not having them work out – will ultimately take you much further than playing it safe, because a) risks are necessary for rewards and b) if you experience failure, it helps you understand that failure doesn’t hurt nearly as much as you thought it did, and it greatly reduces the paralyzing effect that the fear of it has. In kendo, as in snowboarding – and, more to the point, life in general – sometimes you have to commit to win, even if you can’t be sure of the outcome.

So there you have it – musings on failure in sports. I hope you found them useful – and if you have any, I’m interested to hear your anecdotes about things that sports taught you. And for the record, even if they win tonight – Duke sucks.