Unfinished Business

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word “failure” and how much I dislike it. It has such a negative connotation and truly does an injustice when applied to the world of sports. When an athlete does not achieve their goal, but tried very hard or just had a tough day, did that athlete fail? A new nomenclature is needed, one with less baggage and connotes hope and action rather dejection and passivity. The phrase “unfinished business” is one that I am going to adopt in situations in which I do not achieve success; this just sounds like an improvement on “I failed”.

Tires or brakes fail causing accidents. Machines fail. You can fail a test. But, does adding 30 minutes to your Ironman time constitute a failure? I think not.

Here’s a nice cheesy quote for ‘ya!

When it comes to sports, there are myriad ways to define success. Certainly, a best time would be considered successful. As would qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Or reaching the podium. Or having perfect nutrition. Or finally beating your nemesis. The list of ways to succeed are endless. Yet, when it comes to lack of success, there seems to be this heavy burden of failure, and with it brings an equally negative companion– fear.

The incredible negativity that accompanies failure means that athletes fear it. Indeed, fear of failure is a much ballyhooed construct not only in the world of sports but in life in general. Failure is feared due in part to how we believe others will perceive our lack of success and also because the word failure itself indicates we should hang our head in shame for not meeting expectations of ourselves.

Of course, there are the many motivational posters that bellow saccharine slogans like “Without failure there is no success” or “If you learn from failure it is not truly a failure”. And, it is true that success does not occur without lack of success.

If we believe that lack of success is a harbinger for success, it should be framed so that it fits into the equation more positively. Removing the harmful effects that the word failure naturally bestows allows for the possibility of actually embracing a missed goal instead of licking your wounds in ill-conceived embarrassment.

True failure occurs only rarely, such as outright giving up. Most times, it is a matter of figuring out what went right (always start with a positive) and what needs to be fixed, and then trying again. I propose that rather than using the word failure to describe lack of success, we should use the words “bummer” and/or “dud” and the whole shebang is a matter of unfinished business.

Here is how you can use it: “Yeah, my last Ironman was a real bummer. I bonked on the run and walked the last 10 miles – it was a total dud of a marathon. On the bright side, I overcame my fear of open water swimming and I had fun on the bike. Now, I have some unfinished business to conquer in my next Ironman.”

In this scenario, the athlete didn’t look at the race as a failure, but as a disappointment. And, due to a stellar swim and enjoyable ride, the day was salvageable. The whole scenario can then be viewed more positively and now the athlete has unfinished business to take care of in the future.

So much of how we view performance is based on how it is framed. If, from the outset, you take a positive outlook, when the race itself is a bummer but not a total failure, there is less of a value judgment placed on it. This makes the chance for success in the future much more likely. Learn more about building mental toughness in my new book The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness.

This article was originally posted on Race Ready Coaching’s website.

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Joanna Zeiger, MS, PhD, is an Olympian and former World Champion in the sport of triathlon. She is the author of The Champion Mindset: An Athlete's Guide to Mental Toughness, co-founder of Race Ready Coaching, and founder of Train Away Chronic Pain.

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