Meaningful You

Voices of contemporary psychoanalysis

Without Failure, There Is No Success

From Dan Jansen to Chipper Jones to Joe Torre, failure is a prereq. of success

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Andrea Corn, author of the book, Raising Your Game: Over 100 Accomplished Athletes Help You Guide Your Girls and Boys Through Sports, submits this post:

Failure is not something that most people welcome. Why would they? The failure to please oneself or another, the failure to live up to standards or expectations – these are uncomfortable feelings that, as human beings, we tend to do our best to avoid.

And yet, doing so entirely would mean avoiding sports. After all, in every situation, in every sport, at just about every level, there’s a shot at success or failure, often equal and opposite: touchdown or interception, goal or save, make or miss. In every game, there’s a risk that at least one participant will leave the field of play feeling dejected, disillusioned, and inadequate.

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So perhaps, as a parent or other caregiver, you would prefer not to expose a child to such a gut-wrenching sensation. Perhaps you would rather they stay away from anything that might, at some point, make them sad or even sick.

But perhaps, you should ask yourself a question, one that former NFL quarterback Chad Pennington posed as long-time sportswriter Ethan J. Skolnick and I interviewed him for our book “Raising Your Game: Over 100 Accomplished Athletes Help You Guide Your Girls and Boys Through Sports.”

Pennington’s question:

“How can you truly know what success is, if you’ve never experienced failure?”

Pennington was among many elite athletes who drew upon their own childhood and adolescent sporting endeavors to explain the process of becoming the stars the world came to know – who believed, in retrospect, that those painful moments, those moments in which they did not deliver, were transformative not only in their development as athletes, but as people.  The reality is that every athlete, even the most talented, suffered some form of stinging defeat at some point.

As former baseball star and manager Joe Torre argued, “To order to succeed, to appreciate what you are doing, you have to have failure in there – so you know what feeling good is about, and why you feel good.”

Or, as Pennington added: “You have to go through some failures to get to where you want to go, whether it is in school or sports. We as parents have to focus on every once in a while letting our kids fail. We need to teach our kids not to accept failure, but to embrace failure and use it as a teaching experience, use it to learn from.”

In a chapter in the book, we share many of the athletes’ stories, how they paved the path to their resilience, and how a caring other played a role in helping that to occur. There’s a story from Chipper Jones, who would later become one of the all-time Atlanta Braves, leaving the bat on his shoulder as a young teen, letting his teammates down. There’s a story from Jamal Mashburn, disappointed about failing to make the baseball team the first time he tried out, and later becoming an elite prospect in basketball. There’s a story from former tennis prodigy Mary Joe Fernandez, who learned how to lose for a while, until she figured out how to win. There’s a story from John Smoltz, a future Hall of Fame pitcher, who wrote his own book, Starting and Closing, recounting how he so often came up short as he tried to climb the youth ladder, and how “I learned most and best when I failed.”

Then there’s the tale of Dan Jansen.

His story is an agonizing one, but one certainly for the record books, and one that speaks of the failure that every athlete will encounter and need to overcome, even into adulthood.   

He entered the 1988 Olympics in Calgary as a prohibitive favorite in both the five-hundred-meter and one-thousand-meter races. After learning his that his sister died of leukemia, he fell in both events., even while holding a lead in the second one. However, he got back on his skates and set a world record in the five-hundred-meter race in 1991.  He stood as the favorite in the same two Olympic events in Albertville, France in 1992.

He finished fourth in the five-hundred-meter race. He finished twenty-sixth in the five-hundred=meter race. He left empty-handed again, without a medal.

By the 1994 Olympics, Jansen had set four more world records in the five-hundred-meter race since his flop in 1992.

There was just one shot left: The one-thousand-meter race.

What did he draw upon? The failures from his youth? From 1988? From 1992?

“Everything,” Jansen said. “It was being the youngest of nine and getting beat all the time. Not physically of course!  But when things didn’t go my way on the ice, my dad always had a good way to keep perspective. It was like, this is tough, but this is life. I think a little bit of that is missing today for some. I think I am not a huge fan of getting trophies every time you play. It’s not that I want kids to lose, but I think it is part of life. When you move on from sports into real life, you don’t win all the time. It’s the same thing, I learned everything from growing up in sports.”

That year, Jansen proudly stood on the highest podium, gold medal on chest, and even closer to his heart he held his one-year-old daughter; dedicating that elusive medal to his late sister and carrying the flag for the United States in the closing ceremonies.

“It definitely doesn’t go your way all the time,” Jansen said. “And, sometimes it might not even go fully the way you want. But it comes down to the effort you put in and the journey you take, and the things you learn from it. When it’s all said and done, those are all more important than whether you won or lost.”

In that sense, failure isn’t something to fear. Rather, it is one of the gifts of youth sports: providing a solid foundation and springboard upon which to launch a child through the trials and tribulations of life.

Kristi Pikiewicz is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.

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