Our Response to Failure

March 23, 2008

The first thing I saw when I opened the newspaper yesterday was a photo of the young Japanese figure skater, Mao Asada.  It was not a pretty picture.  She was sprawled on the on the ice, just after falling while directly in front of the panel of judges at the World Figure Skating Championships in Goteborg, Sweden.
At high speed, leaping into a triple axel, it was quite a spectacular fall (a YouTube link to her performance is HERE.) 

According to the newspaper report, “the audience groaned in synch” when Asada crashed during her attempt at a triple axel in early in her short program (http://goldsea.com/803/21pm-mao.html).  The photo, in the International Herald Tribune, showed the 17-year-old just after she “slipped and slid into the boards to the accompaniment of Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu”  (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2008-03/22/content_6557525.htm).  Just behind Asada, the concern on the faces of the judges is evident, their mouths gaping with shock and concern.  Asada herself is quoted by Goldsea as saying,  ”My heart also stopped.”

Imagine if you or I had been the skater in this competition.  If you or I had fallen, what would yours or my reaction have been?  After the initial heart-stopping shock of the fall, how would we have fared through the rest of the program?  How did Asada fare? 


From my experience of performing as a musician on stage, I have personal experience with the psychological battle that occurs when a performer makes a highly visible error.  When one is literally in the spotlight in the middle of a performance, it takes every bit of focus that one can muster to put the failure into the past, recover one’s composure, and move on without missing a beat (literally).  How do you do that?   Is the ability to move on after failure a skill that can be learned?  In my view, failure – and how we respond to it — is a topic well worth discussing.  Sooner or later, everyone must deal with failure.  The big issue, I think, is not whether we might fail sometime, but to decide how we will respond to it when it does happen.


Indeed, I hope that failure happens!  Is this a strange thing to hope for?  I think not. 

The first psychological battle is to dare to aim high enough in the first place.  I suppose it’s possible to live a life with no failure, but only if one makes a decision never to take risks.  A decision not to risk failure is also a decision not to risk the corresponding chance for achievement.  If a person never acts on their dreams, the saddest risk is that they will end up with a life of regrets and wondering "what if":  What if I had taken that risk to do x (here fill in the blank with your personal dream)  ______________________, what could have been, if only I had tried? 

Yes, Asada missed the triple axel.  On the other hand, she also took the remarkable risk in the first place.  In 2004, at age 14, she was the youngest female in the world to ever perform the triple axel jump in an international competition (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/wire?section=oly&id=2233743). So, first of all, she tried.  She’ll never have to worry or wonder, "what if". 


The second psychological battle, in my view, is to conquer fear of failure as one races headlong to take the leap.  It takes courage to propel one’s self to top speed and then take a flying leap that might land one onto the slippery ice of failure, in full public view.  My most acute familiarity with highly visible failure comes from my days, long past, of performing as a soloist on the French horn.  There’s one particular passage I remember, the part of Puck in Till Eulenspeigel.  Puck’s exuberant call, in this case my solo,  goes faster and faster and higher and higher until it ends in a frenzied and ecstatic run up to a high C.  It is only possible to reach the note if one runs confidently and without hesitation, with gusto, up into the heights of what is possible to play on the instrument.  If one hesitates for a moment, being distracted by even a moment of doubt about whether one might reach that one, soaring note, the momentum to get there is lost.  Once momentum is lost, all is lost:  the fear of failure itself becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, for without the acceleration and recklessness to fly for the challenge, the player will never leap into the stratosphere.  If a player fails to risk it all, fails to put everything on the line, failure is guaranteed.  He’ll never reach the mark. 


And then there’s the third, and perhaps most crucial, psychological battle when it comes to failure:  how do we respond to failure after it happens.  How does one cope with the humiliation and distraction of a high profile, highly visible failure?  In my own case, I remember such a failure one time during a solo performance.  I still remember how, as I played on after missing a note, I struggled to control self conscious thoughts and fears of doubt — as I continued to play in the performance — about whether I might make another mistake.  Instead of focusing on shaping the musical experience of my audience — hearing in my mind what I wanted the sound to be, aiming for the bar of the high jump, and taking the leap — I found myself far too distracted by focus on details of mechanics and fear of imperfection.  Fear, that self conscious absorption of stage fright and worrying what critics in the audience might think, caused my palms to sweat.  Even this made the brass instrument slippery in my hands.  The resulting insecurity of my grip on the instrument only heightened my fear of missing more notes.  Fortunately in that case the music was easy enough and well enough rehearsed that I could finish with a solid but unremarkable performance.  But that singularly self conscious brush with stage fright undermined my performance to such a degree that I became profoundly aware of the psychological component of performance, whether that performance is in sports, in music, or in life. 

So how did Asada perform, after her spectacular failure on the ice?   Did she collapse under the weight of self consciousness and fear of failure?  No!  It’s reported, “the error was soon forgotten as she completed six triple jumps, a double axel-double loop-double-loop combination and, in the final seconds, a double axel” (http://www.pr-inside.com/asada-wins-women-s-title-despite-big-r496968.htm).  In other words, she didn’t miss a beat.  

Here’s what she told a reporter of her thoughts:  ""Never give up, that’s what I’ve learned," smiled Asada, “This year, I missed my opening triple Axel again, but I learned that if I don’t give up on the rest of the elements, I can make up on the mistakes” (China Daily http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2008-03/22/content_6557525.htm).  Asada, the newspaper reported, “quickly regained her composure and produced an otherwise flawless routine, beating short program winner and European champion Carolina Kostner into second place.”  In spite of the breathtaking crash, she went on to win the gold medal. 

She set her goal, she maintained her focus, and she didn’t give up.  Truly, it’s not failure that matters in life, but how we respond to it.  No wonder, then,  that in World-Class figure skating, Mao Asada is the girl to watch!  

In our own lives, what standards will we set, what focus will we have, and what will our own response be when we fail?  I suggest the proper focus is not on the possibility of failure, but instead that we focus on that which is beyond possible, in order to reach what we otherwise could only dream of.  "For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self control" (2 Timothy 1:7).  Those words had not yet been written on the first Good Friday.  But fortunately for us, someone had a dream that extended beyond that ultimate, public, humilating failure.  HAPPY EASTER! 


1 Comment

Filed under Spirituality

One response to “Our Response to Failure

  1. Rolien

    Hi Xan,
    Nice blog!! And thanks for writing on ours!Enjoy your last week in China!!
    Regards, Rolien

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