How to Use Failure to Your Advantage

by | Oct 23, 2023 | Mindset, Training

We’ve all had a bad race. Maybe it was a DNF, or maybe you finished just off the podium. Most of us have shed a tear or two in frustration in the car heading home from a big race. But then again, if every race went great, what would the point be?

A while ago, we talked to Simon Marshall, PhD and co-author of “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion” about moving through a bad race day. Here are his tips:

Take time to mourn your race

That’s right. It’s completely reasonable to need to take some time to grieve. “When it just happened, it’s very raw, and the worst thing to hear is ‘there are plenty of other races,’ that kind of thing,” Marshall says. “Understand your feelings, and don’t judge yourself for them.” But don’t stay here.

Don’t immediately go into plan/damage control mode

It’s our tendency to want to DO something immediately—like signing up for a race next weekend. While it’s worth quickly making a couple notes for things like gut issues with sports drinks, or a pain in your pinky toe, don’t let failure cloud your perception of your training and impact the next races on the calendar. Think of it like being a little tipsy after a party: it’s not the time to call your ex. Post-race isn’t time to fire your coach or completely overhaul your training. Take some time until you can be objective about your training and calendar before making changes.

Define what “failure” means for you

You may be feeling like you failed at a race, but did you, really? “We have a lot of different voices about what failure is, and we need to figure out where they’re coming from,” Marshall says. That might mean we’ve grown up with a parent who told us second place was the first loser, or maybe it’s from just missing that Boston marathon qualifier by seconds. Maybe we used to finish on the podium at every race, and now, we’re finishing outside of the top 10. The problem with any of these versions of failure is simple: we can’t control what other people are doing any given day. Our competitors are outside of our realm of control, Marshall reminds clients, and because of this, setting goals like “podium in my age group” are unfairly weighted, depending on the strength of the field.

Redefine what a bad race means

“You had a bad run. That doesn’t mean that you as a person are a failure,” Marshall says. We tend to internalize outward failures, and that’s going to be damaging to our psyche and to our sporting career. Rather, he has one measure of success: Did you go out there and race to the best of your abilities on that given day? (That doesn’t mean hitting your PR, it means giving it your all, which may not be up to PR level that day.) It’s a lot more fun to consider all of your races successful than it is to consider all but a select few as failures, right?

Embrace mindfullness

Whether you succeed or fail, the biggest thing you’re probably not doing is taking the time post-race to really feel those feelings and embrace that race day, rather than planning what’s next. “As humans, we’re seekers,” Marshall says. “No sooner is something over, we’re looking over the horizon at what’s next, how we can go better, go faster. But we need to wallow in our successes and our failures. That’s what mindfulness means: looking at what you’ve accomplished, and taking the time to appreciate it and enjoy it.”

Want to Listen to an Episode about Dealing with DNF – Check out this Podcast Episode!


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