"A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for".
I am a trainer and examiner for the British Association of Snowsport Instructors (BASI) and a ski instructor in the Tarentaise valley of France. In my role as an examiner, I have to make a decision at the end of a course on whether a student will pass or fail the exam. Most people who have had to deliver a ‘fail’ result to another person before - in any setting - will agree it’s not a nice part of their role and I have had a fair share of horrible decisions to make and seen some negative and upsetting reactions to a ‘fail’ result.
Failure affects people differently and there are many intellectual texts about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. This won’t be an intellectual text (I failed to become an academic) but I would like to write from my own experience with a ski trainers’ perspective on how we can damage control the effects of a fail and better use failure to up our game. It may be relevant to the learners we teach and coach, or it might hit home personally.
The mindset of failure
I started thinking about this post while listening to an interview with Peter Jones (of Dragon’s Den fame) who was sharing some of his top tips to becoming a successful entrepreneur. (Snowsport instructors are often running their own businesses so his points were fairly relevant to my situation).
He wants the word ‘fail’ to be taken out of the English language altogether, instead replaced with the word ‘feedback’. He also quoted, “There is no such thing as failure, only feedback. Nobody fails at doing anything in their life, all they do is get feedback of how something didn’t work”.
Undoubtedly looking back upon a failing, to learn from it, can help us improve. If you fail an exam, a task, or to reach a goal, you can always take some form of feedback away from that which will help you work towards trying again or moving forwards. But I am not an advocate of eliminating the use of the word fail altogether. Fail is a word that is sticking around and we need to learn to cope with it by seeing that failure and feedback go hand in hand.
Peter Jones goes on to say “If you can replace failure in your mindset with feedback, you will be happy to do things that don’t work and you will continue and become successful, because people are always scared of failure.” He definitely has a point - language can be powerful, it can scare people, but we can’t always filter what words are thrown around out there. By helping our learners to associate failure and feedback together, they may see that, as scary as failure can be, a negative result can be helpful and constructive.
So why are people scared of failure?
The fear of failure is very present in our society and perhaps even starts quite early. There is continual debate about whether the extent of testing used in schools is improving standards or producing a generation of children afraid to fail. On the contrary there are schools introducing sports days with no losers. But surely going down the ‘everyone’s a winner’ route is not helping youngsters learn how to move past a loss or take experience away from a failing? So many people are fearful of following their passions because of risk of failure. Fear and failure seem to bounce off one another.
Having a positive view of failure is valuable because it is rare. Our minds aren’t supposed to like failure. They’re hardwired to avoid it at all costs. When you fail, your body hits you with its stress hormone Cortisol. Fear traditionally protects us, helps us play it safe and avoid risks. However, a failure of action for fear of risk gives us no feedback and provides no future opportunity to redeem ourselves. If we let the fear take over, it will inhibit our quest for success, and inevitably lead to…. failure! It’s all about how we react to failure. If we can get past that fear of failure, we can let it be valuable, useful, even creative.
There is no substitute for experience when it comes to learning and developing. If people don’t try new things because they are afraid of failure, they are missing out on huge opportunities, not least the opportunity of finding their true potential. I’m sure scientists don’t consider themselves as failing every time something doesn’t turn out like they’d hoped it would. They experiment and progress emerges through trial and error. Experts in their fields are named so because they have often made all the mistakes there are to make and learned from them, thus becoming experts. The importance of being able to reflect back on our performances is second to none (and definitely how I have learned my trade).
How to find feedback from failure
Suppose you failed a snowsports instructor exam, there could be a number of reasons for this; preparation, fitness, equipment, technical ability, psychological blocks, to name just a few. You need to find out which of these specifically was the reason that you failed and work on that area before you attempt to take on the exam again. Finding the feedback from a failing is a much more constructive approach rather than just telling yourself that you are not good enough.
When you fail at something you need to examine how far your achievement is from your expectations and analyse that difference. The tendency to view things as either black or white can lead people to give up. More reasoned assessment might show that, far from failing outright you have actually achieved a partial success. Reshape the narrative of failure to something that can provide encouragement to yourself.
As an examiner I sometimes see how the prospect of a fail inhibits a student even from the moment they step onto the exam. But if we give students the tools to reflect back on their performances and learn how to find feedback from multiple sources, they will be able to learn and develop from any form of result. When I see a student coming away from a fail result positively and full of feedback, I know that they will be successful much further beyond the exam they just failed.
Equally development shouldn’t end at a pass. Once you have achieved your goal you could just stop, or you could see it as the beginning not the end. Moving the goalposts as you go along so that there is always a degree of failure to overcome can achieve lasting success, and having regular goals defeats stagnation.
Personally, I can still get really nervous pushing past my comfort zone. I am learning how to face it, and although it requires constant effort, I am driven by the opportunity to succeed at it daily in the knowledge that I am getting paid to do something I never thought possible!
If you would like to listen to more on this subject, I can thoroughly recommend Jamie Alderton’s Podcast: Mindset with Muscle - Proven Strategies to Build Up Your Brain, Body and Business. He talks about how to make failure a springboard to achievement from a fitness perspective. He also shared this quote from Jay Samit which I think is a fitting one to leave you with:
“There is a huge difference between Failure and Failing. Failing is trying something you learn doesn’t work. Failure is throwing in the towel and giving up. True success comes from failing repeatedly and as quickly as possible before your cash or your willpower gives out.”
About the author
Lynn Sharp Mill is an inspirational ski teacher who currently works in the Val D'isere area of the French alps. Her background in skiing includes being an athlete (British Ski Team for 6 years full time), coach (including British Children's Ski Team and British Disabled Development Team), instructor (working for new Generation and now running Valdskiinstructors).
Lynn is also a BASI Trainer and Examiner and member of the BASI National Education Team having been at Interski in Ushuaia, Argentina, 2015 and Pamporovo, Bulgaria, 2019.
To find out more visit her website: http://www.valdskiinstructors.com
All photos in this post are by Ross Woodhall.
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