“Only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.” John F. Kennedy
“I didn’t fail repeatedly; I just found 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb.” Thomas Edison
The Thrill of Victory & the Agony of Defeat
One year, both of my children won first place in sparring at the Diamond Nationals karate tournament in Minneapolis, MN. They were both excited to have won at such a competitive tournament and of course were thrilled at winning 5 ½ foot trophies! Then, one month later they both competed in the National Karate intramural tournament here in Schaumburg, IL and both promptly lost their first fight. They were extremely disappointed.
After the loss, one of my children said that they were not going to compete in any more karate tournaments. I knew right away that this was a pivotal moment in their life. How they handled this setback would shape how they handle future setbacks. Our human nature has defense mechanisms that seek to protect ourselves by avoiding pain (and unpleasant situations), so when we experience failure it is natural to want to avoid that in the future. The problem is that it is unrealistic to go through life avoiding any setbacks. Life is full of disappointments and if we give up every time we experience failure, then we won’t be doing much. There is real pain in failure, but the devastation comes from no longer wanting to try. Once we stop trying we are dead in the water.
I used this difficult tournament loss as a “teachable moment” and explained to my kids that one of life’s most important skills is learning how to handle failure in a healthy way. We grow stronger through adversity if we persevere and don’t give up. I am happy to say that after we had this talk my child decided to keep trying. In the years to come my kids have experienced some great moments of victory and have had to experience some heartbreaking losses. But we try our best to focus not on the winning or losing but on the process. The process of continuing to forge ahead regardless of the ups and downs. You really can’t control the winning or losing but you can control the will to keep trying, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Salmon Khan, the founder of online teaching sensation “Khan Academy” writes a blog about “Why I will never tell my son he’s smart.” He asserts that the growing body of research demonstrates that successful people have a “growth mindset” that doesn’t focus on winning or losing but on the process of working through difficult things. He says, “I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult.”
House of Cards
It is a common parenting mistake in America today that we try to shelter our children from any disappointment or loss in an effort to improve their self-esteem. I would venture to say that the entitlement generation comes from the fact that we as parents may be overcompensating for our own childhood setbacks which we have not fully healed. I admit, I catch myself doing this often, however, psychologists tell us that this actually has the opposite effect. In the short term this seems to work – but eventually there will be a failure that we cannot prevent, and then everything comes crashing down like a house of cards. How we handle our failures and set-backs is paramount to our mental health. Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it.
Make the Most of Your Influence While You Still Have It!
The time to develop these coping skills in our children is NOW while we still have influence in their lives. If we shelter our children from any chance of failure, then they will not have what it takes to handle real disappointments as they get older. Once they are no longer under our influence, they may pick up coping skills that are not healthy from their peers or the world. Many twenty somethings seek drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of failure in their life. I have a family friend who’s son attempted suicide because his girlfriend broke up with him. This is a tragic way to handle disappointment. Developing these coping skills should be one of our most important priorities as a parent.
Tools to Develop Character
At National Karate, we don’t encourage students to compete in tournaments because we want them to become national champions. We don’t encourage our students to earn a Black Belt so they can brag about their achievement. Tournaments and the training process of martial arts are TOOLS that we use to develop character and life skills. When you look at it from that perspective, it is actually healthy for our students to lose sometimes because it gives parents and teachers a chance to help them develop the coping skills they need to successfully navigate life. One of my favorite “Life Skills” that we teach at National Karate is how important it is to develop the “Indomitable Spirit” of a Black Belt – which is a spirit that never gives up, never quits, and always keeps fighting. Through the training we are made stronger both physically and mentally. That’s what I like about sports, it’s just like life – sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. You can’t run from it, but you can learn from it. And as long as we keep fighting and resist the urge to stop trying – WE WIN!
Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy says this about failure…
“The beauty of what I’ve learned through a life of sports, is that failure happens – regularly. And failure, as it turns out, is a constant in the human experience. I’ve also learned that if you’re afraid of failure, you won’t try to do very much. But if you’re going to chase meaningful dreams and do significant things, you have to be willing to come up short sometimes. Success is really a journey of persistence and perseverance in spite of failure. Through pressure, stress and adversity, we are strengthened – in our character, in our faith, and in our ability to get out of bed again and give it one more try”.
I have watched one of my students successfully handle a very emotional and disappointing election loss for class president. Another one of my students who has played basketball all his life had to deal with the rejection of not making the school basketball team. The life skills they learned at National Karate helped him cope with these difficult setbacks and they went on to have future successes in other areas because they refused to give up. I have watched dozens of my adult students over the years deal with losing their jobs. I am proud of how my students are handling this adversity by not giving up and by demonstrating the “Indomitable Spirit” of a Black Belt! We will all experience momentary failures. Remember that. But don’t fear it. True success is how you respond to adversity not so much the winning or losing.
So next time you are tempted to shield your child from a difficult loss or disappointment, resist that urge. Instead welcome the opportunity for a teachable moment to help your child learn how to handle failure in a healthy way. Our days of influence are numbered, so make the most of the limited time you have.
A Message to Adults:
Many adults have been so beaten up by life that they too stop trying. After a lifetime of hard knocks they allowed the setbacks to make them quit trying and have allowed a fear of failure to rob them of their youth. They have bought into the myth that tells them that they should avoid the pain by staying out of the arena of life. What they really need is the encouragement to start trying again.
I also see that many adults have ended up starting a family and have given up on their personal dreams because they are supposed to ‘raise a family’ and ‘be more responsible’. Those adults need to be encouraged to get back into life, get back into shape and fight the mid-life crisis. Adults could use martial arts to help them grow and to get back into the game. I am convinced that if they did this they would become healthier both mentally and physically. This new healthy lifestyle would give them more energy and confidence which would make them better parents and help them live longer for their children.
Questions to Think About…
- Are you afraid to fail?
- Think about a time that you personally experienced a failure or disappointment. Did you learn anything, or can you think of anything good that came out of it?
- Has this article changed how you think about failure?
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If you liked the “Overcoming the Fear of Failure” article, you will also like Man in the Arena article.