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Reframing failure, disappointment and setbacks!

Updated: Dec 6, 2023


We watched the Lionesses fail to win the World Cup. Yes, coming second in an international tournament is phenomenal, they’re reigning European champions, and what they’ve achieved beyond the pitch is inspirational. But they failed. They achieved a million things other than that final victory, and we all wanted to wrap arms around every player on the pitch and tell them they’re wonderful (in my next life can I be Mary Earps?), and as the days go on they will appreciate what they’ve achieved other than the trophy. But in that moment on Sunday, they needed to win that match, and they lost.

Failure is brutal. Failure in sport, however, is even more brutal.

  • There isn’t another job to go for, or contract to win. There’s no ‘other’ national team, or ‘other’ World Cup.

  • As an athlete, you get a tiny window to get it right. Six minutes every four years is when they will hand out Olympic medals in my sport of rowing, or 90 minutes per four years when you have the capacity to win a football World Cup. You often only get one chance in your lifetime to ‘do it’.

  • You’ll never be significantly better or worse than your opposition, but there has to be a margin of victory. A super-over, a penalty shootout, or a photo finish is how major titles are usually decided. The USA were knocked out by a millimetre (which ironically is a measurement they don't use in the States). The margins are tiny but the way you feel about yourself either side of that line is the width of a continent.

  • Most sporting careers aren’t defined by wins, or fairy tale endings. Sport is more about failure than success. A squad of 23 players won the Women’s World Cup but 736 players turned up to Aus/NZ to compete; hundreds more failed to qualify for the tournament.

Sport tells us as much about how to manage setbacks as it does to achieve success.

And what does sport tell us? That the worst thing we can do is fear failure: it’s ok to fail in the pursuit of something you care about! Don't put off applying for your dream job in case you're unsuccessful; don't avoid submitting a pitch for a new contract because the competition are intimidating. A batter shouldn't fear getting out; a team shouldn't walk out on to the pitch fearing losing. Walk towards failure, it shapes you, and you will always learn more about yourself from a failure than a success. It’s brutal but it’s part of life. The Lionesses will be defined by their successes not their failures; but when the whistle blew, it was all that mattered. Failure feels so much more relatable than success. Very few of us will ever know what it's like to stand on top of the podium with arms aloft; but far more of us will know what it's like to pick ourselves up and start again. I love exploring failure and setbacks with business audiences. How have you displayed resilience in failure in your career?

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