Resilience and the Gift of Failure


While we often refer to resilience as ‘bouncing back’ from life’s challenges, for the athlete, it’s usually more about how they respond to failure and get back on track.

We didn’t get on the team!
We didn’t medal!
We didn’t make the kick, throw, or catch!

Athletes don’t like failure, yet it’s inevitable.

Resilience is not about returning to the same path when everything’s gone wrong; it’s about creating a new and better one to take the athlete toward their goals.

When psychologist Mark Seery from the State University of New York tested college students’ pain limits, he plunged their hands into buckets of ice and timed how long they would last.

The results were fascinating. Following a series of interviews, Seery found that those students who had been through the least adverse experiences had lower pain tolerance. Those who had been through the most challenging times and come out the other side coped with pain better.

It seems that overcoming adversity can teach the individual a great deal about handling failure and building resilience.

According to endurance sports journalist Matt Fitzgerald, failure in sports can help us develop coping and resilience. So, we shouldn’t hide from it – we should embrace and learn from it.

After all, you can’t argue with basketball great, Michael Jordan.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 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.”

Adversity and failure

While too much failure can damage our self-belief and confidence, says psychologists, too little and we don’t develop the skills needed to ‘get back in the game’ and finish what we started.

Fitzgerald writes, “Elite sports competition features inherent challenges that demand great resilience from athletes, and resilience, again and again, requires past adversity.”

A 2012 study exploring talent development in sports found that ‘having it all too easy’ may be a disadvantage. For athletes to develop the mental toughness they need for optimum performances, they must learn to overcome challenges – some of which they will fail at.

Additional research involved Olympic Gold medalists. All reported sports and non-sports adversity as essential to their successful performances.

So, everyday adversity (some leading to failure) cultivates mental toughness and coping skills.

Handling failure

Academic, writer, and resilience coach Michael Neenan points out that while two people may have the same experience, they often react very differently.

Let’s consider Sam and Paul, who play similar positions on the same soccer team. They have had a tough season with plenty of defeats.

After the initial disappointment of defeat, Sam recognizes, “It’s part of the game. It’s been a rough season and doesn’t reflect who I am.” He returns to training with a new determination, working on his skills and listening to the advice of his coaches. He continues to grow and develop as an athlete.

Paul handles defeat very differently.

“It’s down to me. I’m just not good enough. I can’t make a difference,” he says. Convinced of his failure, he loses heart, commits less to training, and is ultimately dropped from the team.

The situation is the same, but the two responses are very different. According to Neenan (and the research backs it up), the difference between the two responses comes down to resilience.

And that resilience results from finding constructive ways to deal with hard times – and failure.

Learning from failure

Failure taught American middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds some hard lessons.

While a fast runner, he wasn’t able to medal in the biggest competitions. In 2012, he gave his all in the London Olympics, running the best time of his career, only to finish fifth.

A picture taken after the race shows him in stunned disbelief with his head in his hands.

Fed up with failing to win, he decided to move away from his tried-and-tested approach of ‘coming from behind’ – it wasn’t working.

Symmonds knew that if he adopted an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach and hit the wall, he would have to accept more failure and learn some new lessons.

Having tried out the new approach a few times with some success, Symmonds ran his most aggressive race so far at the 2013 World Championships. He moved into the lead with a full 800-meter lap left to run. While Ethiopian Mohammed Aman overtook him in the last few seconds, he had done it. He had his first international medal – a silver.

He recognized that he only got it because of previous failures and how he responded to them.

Fitzgerald, writing about an athlete’s response to failure, has this to say: “Eventually, the cycle of failure causes an athlete to feel either defeated or angry.” The individual chooses how they respond, and it decides whether or not they become better at their sport.

Psychological tools for coping with failure

Ultimately, all of our high school and college athletes can learn to become better at recovering from failure – whatever their past.

Psychological research has identified several essential elements of well-being that can help anyone deal with tough times and turn fails into wins:

● Self-acceptance is vital in handling failure well.

When our young athletes can show self-compassion and accept themselves–warts and all–they are less impacted by things going wrong. Yet, if they only see themselves as successful when everything goes well, they are setting themselves up for disappointment.

Ideally, the young athlete accepts those aspects of themselves they cannot, or are unwilling, to change, for example, their height or desire to fit in, yet work hard on what they can, and wish, to change. Perhaps improving their jump shot in basketball or knowing how to connect with others. These are all changeable.

The coach might need to remind athletes that poor performance does not define their entire career and that all athletes are different.

● Self-belief is another essential ingredient of coping when things don’t go as planned.

The mentally strong individual is well-prepared and plans for what could go wrong – yet recognizes that the unexpected is inevitable.

By setting inspiring, yet realistic goals, our athletes can work toward what they would like to achieve, overcoming obstacles along the way and building resilience and self-belief in doing so.

Students should be encouraged to recognize and celebrate small and big wins.

● Humor can help our high school and college students deal with stress at their most challenging times.

While not to be overused, humor, when appropriate, can de-escalate situations and help fellow students not take themselves or their failings too seriously.

Psychologists recognize that humor can also benefit group bonding and alliance forming.

Lightheartedness may help after a tough team training session. Yet, care must be taken to avoid offending anyone or appearing too flippant.

● Emotional regulation can be a valuable practice in sports and the academic world, as it can help manage stress and encourage the students to be more present, supporting focus and learning.

Mindfulness helps individuals and groups accept feelings without judgment and handle overwhelming emotions.

Learning and practicing the above skills can help our students manage and recover from failure while building resilience and mental and physical talents to win.

Wrapping Up

We can see failure as a gift, says Fitzgerald. It can provide harsh but valuable lessons to help our high school and college athletes achieve their best performances.

However, without the right mindset or appropriate skills, it can discourage them – breaking their spirit.

As coaches and parents, we can work with our athletes to help them identify, understand, and utilize their strengths while reflecting on what failure has taught them.

A final example from another sporting great.

When cyclist Cadel Evans failed to win the world-famous Tour de France for the sixth time, he must have considered giving up. Yet he told a journalist that “Missing out all those times kept me hungry.” He turned failure into motivation to improve and learned vital lessons and skills.

When he returned to the race the following year, the sports pundits had already written him off.

Yet he had learned from his failures.

With one day of racing left in the 21-stage 2,132-mile race, Cadel was placing third.

But on the last day, pushing his body to the limits, he achieved enough time to secure the overall win. Evans became the first Australian and the second oldest since the Second World Way at the age of 34 to win the Tour de France.

“I had to put it on the line, but it was my Tour to win and mine to lose,” said Cadel after the race.


ABC News. (2011, July 24). In quotes: Cadel’s tour triumph. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-07-25/cadel-in-quotes/2808382

15 of the best motivational quotes by great athletes on struggle and success. Fearless Motivation – Motivational Videos & Music. (2017, September 11). https://www.fearlessmotivation.com/2017/09/13/motivational-quotes-by-athletes/

Collins, D., & MacNamara, Á. (2012). The Rocky Road to the Top: Why Talent Needs Trauma. Sports Medicine (Auckland), 42(11), 907–914. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03262302

Fitzgerald, M. (2016). How bad do you want it?: Mastering the psychology of mind over muscle. Aurum Press Ltd.

Neenan, M. (2018). Developing resilience: A cognitive-behavioral approach. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Sutton, J. (2019). What is resilience and why is it important to bounce back?. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-resilience/