In May 2018, retired US Women’s National Soccer team star Abby Wambach gave the commencement address to 600 women from Barnard College in New York City. Wambach, the all-time leading scorer for Team USA, an Olympic and World Cup champion, and an inspirational athlete known for playing with passion and giving her all every time she stepped on the field, gave an inspiring talk to the graduates. She shared stories from her career and lessons she learned. (You can read the entire amazing talk here. I would encourage every young athlete to read it.)
One of the lessons she learned over decades at the top of her sport was to make failure her fuel. Wambach said,
Here’s something the best athletes understand, but seems like a harder concept for non-athletes to grasp. Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright, and they end up wasting it. Listen: Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be powered by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel….Women, listen to me. We must embrace failure as our fuel instead of accepting it as our destruction.
Did you catch that, young athlete? She said we must embrace failure, and not let it destroy us. Actually use it as fuel to get better. As fuel to get moving again. As fuel to not let anyone tell us our dreams are not worth pursuing. As fuel to put aside the disappointments that come along with attempting something worthy and great.
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Failure is oxygen. Like a fire uses oxygen as a way to grow, we use failure as our fuel. It is a natural part of pursuing excellence. It is supposed to happen.
In their research on elite and near elite performers, or what they call “Super Champs” and “Champs,” Dave Collins and his colleague Aine MacNamara have found that those who make it to the very top, who play internationally and have the greatest success, have a path filled with struggle. They are presented with both on field and real-life struggle, disappointment, and at times pain—yet they persevere. “The talent pathway,” they conclude, “should not be a comfortable place to be.”
It is a rocky road to the top.
Collins and MacNamara also found that well-timed character and psychologically based interventions from coaches and supportive adults help these athletes develop coping skills, grit, and resilience. In other words, it is not our job to smooth the pathway of our athletes, to give them plush fields, carry their gear for them, and remove all obstacles from their supposed path to greatness. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It is our job to help them learn from struggle, and see that the path to the top is not supposed to be easy.
If we really want to help our athletes, students, musicians, and entrepreneurs achieve something great, we need them to understand the path is filled with potholes. We need to be sure not to pave them over, but to ensure each one of those potholes becomes an opportunity to learn.
For many children in sport, May and June mean tryout season. This is inevitably a season of disappointment for many children. Some will do not make the team they want and others will not make a team at all. It is a time where they face uncertainties such as new teammates, a new coach, perhaps a new club and whole new friend group. Many families move towns, and young athletes are thrust into trying situations, with no friends or familiar faces to look upon.
They may face failure and adversity during this season. They will definitely face it if they continue in sports. It is up to us as parents to help failure become our kids’ fuel. How do we do that?
Help your athletes focus on the process
Nothing worth doing comes easily, especially in sports. You will have your good days and bad days, your injuries and your healthy periods, your good coaches and your bad ones. Help instill a growth mindset in your kids by, as noted Stanford Researcher Carol Dweck says in her great TED talk, introducing the word “yet” into their vocabulary. “I didn’t make the top team YET, I need to practice more.” “I have not earned a starting spot YET. It’s time to get to practice early and stay late.”
Ask your athletes the right questions when they struggle
Though times of adversity can often lead us to criticize, or focus on the negative, a great approach after a struggle is to ask these three questions:
What went well?
What needs work?
What can you learn from today that will help you practice better this week and perform better in the future?
These are not only process-oriented questions, but they also help athletes realize that it never all goes wrong. There is always some good, and always opportunities to learn. When your athlete faces adversity, focus on “What is good about this?”
Focus on their response to events instead of the uncontrollables
Athletes do not control the actions of officials or what the opponent does. They cannot account for a bad field or poor weather. Blaming and complaining will never make an athlete better, and they only bring negative energy into the conversation and the team.
Help them focus on what they control—effort, focus, training time, etc—and let the other stuff just roll off. As Ohio State Football coach Urban Meyer says, E + R = O. The EVENT plus our RESPONSE equals the OUTCOME. We control our response—so respond well!
Help them find things they are passionate about
One of the critical ingredients needed for athletes to overcome adversity is ownership of the experience. As parents, when it comes to sports it is very helpful to assist our kids in finding their passion, instead of determining it for them. When a young athlete loves what she is doing, and is doing it because she owns the experience, she is far more likely to keep pushing through injuries, adversity, etc. It is great when kids fall in love with the sports we love or played, but that does not always happen. You cannot force passion, and passion is what overcomes adversity.
Show them how to embrace the hand they were dealt and play it well
We all have faced adversity, and when our children struggle, it is a great time to share our own struggles, and what we learned from them. Be vulnerable, and teach them how adversity helps you develop grit, resilience, and more love of a sport, or a job, or anything you do.
As Wambach shared in a speech before the 2015 World Cup, though she was one of the greatest players and leaders the US National Team had ever known, she was asked to lead from the bench. “You’re allowed to be disappointed when it feels like life’s benched you,” said Wambach. “What you aren’t allowed to do is miss your opportunity to lead from the bench. During that last World Cup, my teammates told me that my presence, my support, my vocal and relentless belief in them from the bench gave them the confidence they needed to win us that championship. If you’re not a leader on the bench, then don’t call yourself a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere.”
I wrote this because I am a coach, and my teams just finished tryout season. I have been coaching for over two decades, and I still hate tryouts. This year, like every other, there were disappointed players.
As always, I had to have a very difficult conversation with a young player who was devastated not to make the top team in her age group. It is a conversation every coach dreads having.
But this player was stood out because of how she responded. She could have quit. She could have blamed everyone.
But she did not. She got to work. She showed up focused and prepared every day. She joined extra practices. She embraced her role as a leader on her new team. She took every opportunity to play up, and gave her best effort every time. She learned from the good days, and from the bad days. One year later, she was back on the top team in her age group.
Her failure was her fuel. And that fuel helped her earn her spot.
Because in the end, it was not really even a failure at all. Just a bump in the long rocky road to the top.
Help your athletes to make their failure their fuel. Help them navigate those potholes that sports, and life, throws their way. Not by blaming, avoiding, or paving over those bumps, but by helping your athletes see that there is always a path forward.