Thursday, December 13, 2012

Failure by Another Name

Cycling is a sport filled with failure.  Out of countless entries, only a single rider wins—sometimes by nothing more than the width of a tire. And while second place gets to stand on the podium, there is an emotional chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between winning and second place. Just ask whoever was second place in last year’s Paris Roubaix, uhhhhh… Oh I guess I can’t recall. What is more telling than that?  I am an avid cycling fan, and Paris Roubaix could be my favorite race of the year, and I can’t remember, without significant mental difficulty, who got second. 
Does anyone remember the podium from important races?
So why do we keep going? Why keep competing if the odds are so not in your favor? Arguably an athlete could do everything right in their training, preparation, mental preparation, and race strategy and still never win a race. So how do we deal with this? How do we cope with constantly losing, getting dropped, and bonking? Well I’m not sure. If I knew, I would probably be some kind famous sports psychologist.

Though my career in sports psychology is on a less than stellar trajectory, I have become somewhat of an expert on rejection in high-stakes situations.  My other field of choice, music, is equally  rife with rejection.  Believe it or not, professional tuba playing, or any musical instrument for that matter, is an incredibly competitive field, with as many as 150 tuba tooters showing up for an audition for a single job in a major orchestra or band. Pretty much on par with a ProTour cycling event.
Most famous disappointing second place ever.
About a week and a half ago, I took one of these auditions, to join The President’s Own Marine Band in Washington D.C.  I will spare you the details of the audition, but I ended up runner-up out of 85 or so tuba players for a career-worthy job, playing tuba for the President. Disappointing would be an understatement. Like second place in Paris Roubaix, it is a result of which I should be wickedly proud—yet at the moment of the rejection, I couldn’t help but feeling as if it would have been easier to simply get dropped in the first 15k, or in my case, getting eliminated in the first of four rounds. 

So I am left standing there in the Marine Barracks in Washington empty-handed, while the guy who beat my by a tire gets a great job. How do I deal with this? Well a week later, I am still figuring that out, but it is safe to say I am at least started down the right road. I used cycling as a model. 
2nd place by a tire

I thought about the look of utter dismay on Heinrich Haussler’s face after getting beat by a tire in 2010’s Milan San Remo. After the disappointment wore off though, he bounced back. Using failure as a motivator, Haussler bounced back to win a stage at that year’s Tour de France. 

So there it was. I already knew how to deal with failure. I had seen it play out countless times in bike racing.  Failure becomes a motivator when you twist the perspective. It can be a useful tool to honestly confront your weaknesses and address them. This is a time where denial can be damaging.  Sometimes difficult and brutal honesty is a bitter but necessary pill after a failure in any walk of life. 

An almost successful race can also be a great opportunity to pat yourself on the back. When you get down to it, second or last place, there are always some positives to take away from any result. Be honest with yourself and look at what you did well.  Specifically looking at what went well and exactly how you went about it, will allow you to replicate those factors while working to improve upon your weaknesses. 

I’m not writing this as a sob story. Maybe there is some level of catharsis involved here, but dealing with failure is a skill that everyone, competitive or not, needs to perfect. Sometimes despite perfect preparation you just fail. It is unavoidable.  It’s what you do next that counts. 

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