Football player Mia Hamm is often credited with the quote, “Success breeds success”.  On most occasions this principle is seen to be true.  If you are successful, you begin to think more confidently, feel more confident, and perform more confidently, resulting in increased likelihood of success, which makes you think more confidently…and so on.

But what about failure?  Does this principle mean that if you fail you are doomed to a never-ending cycle of failure leading to dented confidence, increased anxiety, and underperforming under pressure?

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.  Here are three ways to turn failure into success and short-circuit the cycle of failure before it becomes a habit:

1. Be optimistic
Optimistic people view failure as an opportunity to learn, like they are determined to drain every last drop of positivity out of what might seem like a bleak situation.  For example, an athlete who fails to gain selection for the Commonwealth Games may identify that this gives them more time to prepare for their next competition that their competitors may not have, providing drive and motivation to work hard and increase their chances of selection for the next big event.  Being optimistic does not mean lying to yourself or pretending that you are not disappointed.  The key is, what are you going to do about it?  According to Barbara Fredrikson, optimism broadens your perspective which increases your options and your coping resources, ultimately contributing to improved performances.  In contrast, pessimism narrows your perspective, leading to reduced options and increased likelihood of being trapped in the cycle of failure.  For more information on this viewpoint, read her book Positivity.

2. Balance
Remember that it’s who you are, not what you do, that defines you.  Even though your performance on or off the field may be important and something that you have worked hard for, make sure that you have a safe place outside of your sport/performance that you can go to where you are not judged by your performance.  You may enjoy going for a walk with a loved one, playing with your kids, going for a picnic, watching movies/TV series, listening to music or grabbing coffee with friends.  All of these things can help you to feel grounded and provide balance especially when it feels like everything else is out of control.  In one of my research projects when I interviewed a coach about what it takes to be an elite athlete stated, “to be a professional sportsperson you’ve got to have a bit of an outlet that takes you away from that single focused desire because it will increase that desire to succeed.”

3. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
When you are building muscle in the gym, strength coaches will encourage you to load your muscles with weight that is slightly more than what you can lift to reach a ‘failure’ point.  It is at this point that the magic happens and your muscles grow in response to the increased demand that is required of them.  In the same way, tough situations such as injury, increased pressure and failure, stretch your mental capacity, and provide an opportunity for you to develop your mental muscle, proving to yourself that you can cope with more than you thought you could previously (resulting in increased confidence).

While you do not want to expect failure or set yourself up for failure, reducing the threat of failure by following the above steps will help you to make the most of difficult situations, leading to increased mental muscle and resilience.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. – Michael Jordan

Book an appointment to make success out of failure with our Brisbane sport psychologists at Queensland Sports Medicine Centre.