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Unsold sports failure op-ed

Saturday 5/13/23

How to own failure in sports (and life).

After my beloved Boston Bruins were dispatched from the NHL playoffs by a plucky—and deserving—Florida Panthers squad, a friend of mine remarked to me that the Bruins didn’t choke, which nearly caused me to do just that on the day-old coffee I was drinking.

For the span of a fortnight, at least, I had no doubt that Florida was the better team. And yet I also know that the Bruins choked, the same as I know that we’re also losing sight of what it really means to fail in an age that frequently resembles an apologia for reality.

Upon his Milwaukee Bucks being shown the playoff exit door by the upstart Miami Heat, future basketball Hall of Famer Giannis Antetokounmpo stated there there is no such thing as failure in sports. Essentially, you win some, you lose some.

The latter point may be extrapolated to life itself, no matter how stacked your squad—that is, you—may be. But failure is multi-factorial. There’s a lot going on with it. Or there can be, if you’re wise and strong enough.

We fail the most when we compound failure by saying we didn’t fail—and trying to get ourselves to believe this—after we’ve done just that.

Failure isn’t an end all be all, which is how many people view it. It may be a start or a staring over. A great opportunity. But that opportunity begins with the mental component of owning what one has done—or what one didn’t do.

To return to my Bruins: they choked not because of physical errors so much as the pressure became too much for them on the mental side, which manifested in the physical.

We control the mental. We have a say in how mentally strong we will be. Noise can be blocked out, and that includes noise from within when that noise is deleterious or vitiates our purpose.

That’s what a choke is in sports—when the mental takes over the physical and the bigger the occasion results in the larger the collapse.

A choke may be a one-time affair where a person—or a team—essentially says, “Right, that was terrible. The bed has been defecated. That does not happen again.”

One assesses what one did wrong. Body and mind are steeled against making the same mistakes twice.

Dominant teams tend to lose—as do we, as people—when they cease to play their game, allowing that the game they usually play is a worthy and sound one. They get away from that game.

Play your game in sports and life, and you’ll win more often than you lose. No one goes undefeated, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is stacking victories and the power of one’s ability to bounce-back after defeat.

Is choking embarrassing? Of course. Win the next time. That’s what everyone will remember—all the more so because of what happened prior. Bounce-back winning is ultimate winning, because it is the truest to life, requiring the very best of what we are and can be.

What I call good failure stems from lofty goals, which are admirable.

Let’s say my goal for today is to write 5000 words, but I only write hall of that. Did I fail to meet my goal? Yes. Let’s say those are outstanding words, though. I have them. They are done. They exist. I am also driven to do better the next day because I’ve also let myself down. I have both failed and succeeded, and I am primed to do better tomorrow.

Failure is an invitation to get up and improve. In every capacity. As a parent, as a friend, at work, to one’s self, or as a team with the best record in a sport that just got sent home for the summer when it’s still cold in spring.

There’s life in failure if you do failure right, because it means you went for something and you understood nuance and duality. You had goals based upon what you thought you could or should do. The weakness is in having tried and failed and not resolved to try harder to succeed the next time.

No one wants to fail. But those who are best at succeeding understand that failure provides a leg up for success, allowing that you own it. Listen to it. Learn from it. Double down in your belief in yourself, allowing that the belief has good reason to be there.

That’s winning. A form so true and vast in what it represents that it even has a place for failure, and isn’t diminished by the association.

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