I was reading the book Bounce: How Champions are Made recently, and the author mentioned a Michael Jordan commercial for Nike from several years ago. Watching the commercial again, I realised how powerfully it demonstrates the importance of accepting failure and setbacks as we strive for greatness in whatever we do.

In order to remain motivated, committed and focused on doing what it takes to reach or remain at the top, elite athletes have to learn to respond well to setbacks, including failing to achieve their goals. This includes how they respond to a relatively small failure, like losing a point in a game, larger failures such as losing an entire match due to a mistake, and huge career-impacting failures, like under-performing at a crucial trial and missing out on Olympic selection.

To persevere in the face of failure requires a mentally tough attitude. Without it, we are likely to lose confidence or interest in trying again, and give up.

To become better equipped to handle failure and begin to embrace it as a learning experience we need to learn to manage our emotional reaction to it. It takes time and repeated effort to override our automatic response to negative events such as not performing as well as we would like, or failing in a task we set ourselves.

The first step is to become more aware of when you do this. Start to notice what kind of things you say to yourself (e.g., “I’m an idiot”, “I give up”), what beliefs you hold that might be unrealistic (e.g., “I must succeed first time, every time” or “I must beat everyone”), and how having these thoughts and beliefs make you feel (e.g., unhappy, angry, frustrated, hopeless).

Then think about whether you could start to use more positive self-talk (e.g., “that didn’t work, but at least I gave it a go”, “that’s disappointing but what can I learn from what went wrong”) or hold more helpful beliefs (“trying and failing is better than not trying at all”). In combination, this can help you to feel better when things don’t always go quite to plan.

If you are struggling with finding some more encouraging beliefs, reading biographies of successful athletes, entrepreneurs or people in your own field of interest, can be inspirational. You will usually see their lives are not a series of successes from cover to cover.

You could also try to find an inspirational quote or ‘mantra’ about success or failure. Here are a few of my favourites:

“Behind every successful man there are a lot of unsuccessful years” Bob Brown

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall” Confucius

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly” Robert F. Kennedy

Having a more positive repertoire of responses to setbacks is important to help you feel better about yourself, and stop you from throwing in the towel. But if you want to improve your performance you also need to be able to take something useful from the experience, to improve your chances of success next time you try. Athletes and their support staff spend a lot of time analysing their game or performance, both in competition and training. This information helps them really understand what went wrong and right and helps set the agenda for training needs and alternative strategies.

One way you can do this for yourself is to run a mini debrief session after something doesn’t work out. How structured you are when you do this is a matter of choice, but it is important to not only focus on the main outcome you were hoping for (and that you didn’t achieve) but to honestly review all aspects of the experience and preparation that went into it.

Here is a relatively simple example, involving my own unsuccessful goal of improving my weekly timed mile from 9 minutes to 8 minutes (I did it in 8:45):

1. What went well?

  • I improved my time from last month
  • My recovery time is faster

2. What could I have done differently

  • Trained more (I didn’t get to the gym 5 times a week as planned)
  • Do timed mile before a meal (I did it one hour after lunch and felt full)

3. What do I need to do/learn/practice in order to do better?

  • Speak to someone who can give me advice about ways to improve speed
  • Plan my training sessions better around my schedule

4. What would I like to do better next time (re-set goals)

  • Improve my time by another 10-15 seconds next month

Like Michael Jordan, most successful people will have tried and failed many times. It is how they responded to failures, setbacks, obstacles and challenges that kept them going. Most importantly, evaluating why we failed and learning from the experience teaches us more about ourselves or our opponents, so that we are better equipped to excel next time we try.