Why I Needed to Fail to Get to the Top of My Game

It is exactly a week ago that I stared right into the eyes of my nemesis at the starting line of the Vitality Oxford Half Marathon.

Scrolling back to 2015, exactly year ago, I had the most disastrous run to date, at this very same event. Instead of collecting the finishers’medal in 2015, I had to pull out after only a couple of km’s due to my ITB playing up, and limp back to the race village, leaving behind a group of friends who were also racing that day. I felt especially frustrated because at that time, I had barely just recovered from another injury, impacting my Posterior Tibial Tendon. Then, to add insult to injury (quite literally!), I happened to arrive back at the race village exactly at the same time as the winners were crossing the finish line, amidst loud cheering and celebrating coming from the spectators; whilst all I wanted to do was throw a pity party for myself and lick my wounds somewhere alone.

However, fortunately, in the following weeks, I concluded that feeling miserable and sorry for myself was not the way forward, so I decided to dig myself out of the hole and learn whatever I could to come back to racing stronger, wiser and faster than ever. This negative experience and my two serious injuries have taught me that failure is not falling down, but remaining where I have fallen.

Olympian and award-winning author Matthew Syed’s book called Black Box Thinking: the Surprising Truth about Success came to my rescue just at the right moment when I was feeling so low. He studied how successful people (including athletes) and organisations deal with and bounce back from major setbacks. His key theory in the book is that successful people and organisations have a healthy and robust attitude to mistakes – he calls it ‘Black Box Thinking‘ whereby failure, if harnessed correctly, can provide the surest path to success. To date, the application of ‘Black Box Thinking’ has been a real game changer for me both in my professional life and in my running career. A year after my fiasco, I have returned to Oxford with a bang and managed to set my second ever best half marathon time, surpassing even my own expectations.

In this post I will share how this way of thinking has brought real transformation into my life, and especially into my running. I will devote a separate post to the race review shortly, so please keep your eyes peeled for the second part.

So let’s get to it!

Ditch the ego

Following the advice in the book, the starting point for me was to try and work up a positive mindset and attitude to failure, then analyse what went wrong, as part of my future strategy for improvement.

This step can be especially hard, because if you are used to succeeding, and your ego is bound up in your success, failure can feel pretty devastating, because you have not learnt the psychological tools to engage with failure to help you improve. It is not difficult to see that our ego tends to make it difficult for us to admit our mistakes and accept our failures.

Learn from everything

The key thing is to use every experience and every aspect of every training session in the Black Box analysis as a learning opportunity; so in my case, not just talking about an unfinished race but for example also ‘off days’, poor training runs and so on. Basically, associating failure not with a single event, but broadening my perspective to see the full picture.

Marginal gains

In the sporting world, deconstructing performance down to the smallest components to establish what is working and what is not is known as the ‘marginal gains’ approach. With lots of help from my physiotherapist who did a postural and running gait analysis for me, we managed to ‘unearth the truth’. It transpired that my ITB issues had developed over a course of time, due to having weak glutes, lots of tightness in the hip flexors and inward rolling knees – it was like sitting on a timebomb which was ticking all along and was ready to explode any time. Once we got to the bottom of my issues, I started to religiously do the specific strengthening exercises and a foam rolling routine my physio gave me and purchased some tailor made insoles for my running shoes to attack my problem areas, with all hands on deck. To date, I am still following this protocol, to keep my chronic ITB problems at bay. I have developed a way to train in a smarter way, the discipline to hold back when necessary, in order to better protect my body from injury; and I am thankful for these lessons which have made me a better runner.

Feedback

Since my injuries, I have finally learnt to listen to what my body is telling me during training season – first, my body has its very subtle and polite ways, whispering into my ear when I need to turn down the gear a  bit, or take more time to recover; if that gets ignored, the whisper can very easily turn into shouting, telling me in no uncertain terms that something is not right and I need to sort my sh*t out. The great thing about running is that it is relatively easy to apply Black Box Thinking frequently because we get almost instant feedback every run from our body about how things went.

For example, if I am niggly, I attack the foam roller, I stretch more, I eat more recovery food, sleep more hours, even put my training on hold (and lower my race time goals, if necessary), until I know I am properly ‘back in the game’. I know that ignoring a niggle to do just another race so that I can brag about another finisher medal in my collection can have very costly consequences in the long run, a risk I am not willing to take any more. I hold my hands up and admit that in the past, my own ambition was holding me back sometimes, because I was overtraining and breaking my body, I have always been very competitive and I certainly do not shy away from training hard.

However, in certain other areas of life, we may not get as swift feedback between an action and its consequences, so we do not learn as fast. But learn we do, and often in the hard way. Life is a great teacher. Oh, yeah.

Pre-mortem

This concept of the Black Box thinking is basically exploring why a plan may go wrong before it is put into action, and drawing up different solutions to tackle these setbacks. For example, before each race, I go through a list in my head about how I would play things if for example, the weather turned suddenly awful; if I felt sick during the run; if my ITB was playing up again; if I ran out of energy gels or water etc. This helps me prepare for most scenarios so I have a better chance of avoiding failure. For example, at this year’s Windsor River Trail half, I decided to carry my own water bottle, even though I knew there were going to be water stations all along the route. And I am so glad I did, because many runners who were slower than me, later reported that by the time they had reached the water stations, there had been nothing left for them, so they were left parched for the rest of the race, as it was an unusually hot day!

Do Not be Afraid

Research shows that very young children have no concept of fear; it actually only develops as we get older.  (Looks like we are losing quite a few perks with adulthood, such as our ability to stop eating when we are full!). Negative attitudes to failure tend to develop as we go to school, then enter the relentlessly demanding world of work where failure is simply not an option, or we could easily lose our livelihood!

But failure does not need to be the end of the road; it is important to recognise that it can can be so vital for success, and the catalyst for much better things. If you can adopt this mindset and redefine failure in your own story, it has the potential to unleash progress, creativity and resilience, in all walks of your life, including your chosen sport.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and have found it helpful, especially if you are struggling to ‘get up again’ right now.

Tell me about a time when you successfully dealt with a failure – in life in general or in your sport!

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