Failure vs. Success

Think back to a time in your life when you were praised for your success in a particular activity. Did that praise have any influence on your desire to pursue a certain path in life? Did you then realize you were following this path not out of your own love or passion for it, but because you enjoyed the feedback you received about your successes? One of the reasons I think I fell in love with tennis at the age of 10 was because I won the under-12 championships at my local tennis club after playing the sport seriously for about two months. I realized that I was pretty decent at the sport and some other people at the club seemed to agree with that sentiment.

The path to then becoming a Division I All-American athlete in college was full of successes and failures, but it appears it was this initial success that sparked my love for tennis. I now question if it was true passion that led me to devote every waking moment to my tennis career or was it the praise I received from people about my skills that kept me motivated? Probably a little bit of both, which I now understand is quite natural for any child. As a parent, when do we praise success and get upset about failures, or should we even be upset about failures at all? It is an interesting question and the answer is most likely very different for each child. However, I believe as parents we need to be selective about what successes we celebrate and remind our children at all times that failure is an opportunity to learn.

My mini-me trying to mimic my forehand.

My mini-me trying to mimic my forehand.

We live in a society now where failure is reviled. In America, the Ricky Bobby quote, “If you ain’t first, you’re last," holds more truth than we would care to admit. The U.S.A has had so much sporting success as a nation that now if you are not the # 1 most dominant player/team in your sport then the general public has little interest. If your “team” is not winning, you don’t buy tickets for the game. The “Tiger Woods” effect in golf is another great example. Now that he is no longer the world’s most dominant player, the American public’s interest in golf has waned greatly. Everything revolves around winning, and losing is not an option. However, most elite athletes and self-aware people I know would say they have learned more through their failures than their successes. So why, as parents, are we so fearful of our children failing? Is it because we don’t want to look bad in front of others? Or is it because society has created this unrealistic expectation that if you are not on top, then you are a loser? Don’t forget that success can also lead to negative outcomes, and I know this from personal experience. Sometimes after a successful tournament, I would increase my expectations to an unrealistic level and suffer the consequences (overconfidence, less deliberate practice, pressure to replicate the performance, etc.). This would lead me to get lost in my own head rather than focusing on the process and the things I could control. I would even become more fearful of failure the next time around.   

I want our kids to balance failure and success early in their lives so that they can develop the necessary skills to be more resilient to adversity. In turn, I believe they will most likely be happier later in life. This goes against many parents’ instincts, and I obviously never want to put my children in danger, but I do not fear the failures they will endure. I often ask them what failures they are experiencing and what they think they are learning from those moments. I want them to know that failure should be embraced rather than avoided. If they are not failing, then they are probably not pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. Real learning takes place in that space just outside our comfort zone and we should all be striving to push ourselves out of what is comfortable on a consistent basis, thus failing…. A LOT! Think about how you build muscle in the gym: you have to constantly add weight and lift to failure in order to push your muscles to grow and adapt. It is no different in sports, music or life – we only improve if we keep challenging ourselves a little differently each time.

As a coach, I love working with players who embrace criticism and understand that failure is a necessary part of their development. When I have players who take responsibility for their actions, the rewards for player and coach are unlimited. On the other hand, athletes who do not take ownership for their actions, or are "not allowed" to fail by their parents, have limited skills for dealing with adversity. They will most certainly be very un-coachable and their development will stagnate well below their potential.

Protecting your children from failure is not the solution. Get out of YOUR comfort zone and let your kids fail often and fail fast. There is so much value in failure if you are willing to embrace it. Winning most certainly is not the ultimate goal; investing and growing and trying your best throughout the process is absolutely everything, and there is no finish line for this journey. Failure builds resiliency and it is inevitable that our children will face a great deal of adversity throughout their lives! I believe the best way to help them build their resiliency muscles is to let them fail safely throughout their childhoods.