It might sound strange, but if you want to understand failure you should ask a successful person.
That’s what I’ve learned after listening to two of Ireland’s greatest athletes speaking at separate events recently.
Catherina McKiernan was talking about ChiRunning techniques at the Running Mojo workshop in Dublin on 1 February. But she prefaced her demonstration by reflecting on her running background and career – which included that freakish series of four successive silvers at the World Cross-Country Championships. For a world-class athlete pushing for gold, and who had been European champion at one time, that could be taken as failure.
And it was a throwaway remark that stuck with me. Catherina told us that she’s asked often whether she’d swap her four silvers for one gold medal. She wouldn’t – those four silvers are proof of her consistent high achievement over four years, she said.
I’ll come back to that remark later.
The other athlete was Sonia O’Sullivan, who spoke at a public event called Runner Up: The Psychology of Failing Better in Sport, part of the excellent Fail Better exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin. Also on the panel was Professor Ian Robertson, psychologist and author of “The Winner Effect”.
During her illustrious career Sonia won World and European titles, but in the public mind she will be forever linked to Olympic defeat of varying degrees – fourth place in 1992, silver in 2000, last and lapped in 2004, and especially stepping off the track in Atlanta in 1996 when she was expected to win.
Speaking openly about her Atlanta experience, O’Sullivan pinpointed the factors that contributed to that disastrous race. Her preparation in the months before those Olympics hadn’t gone well. This preyed on her physically through overtraining and psychologically through doubts about her readiness. And by keeping the problems to herself, she built up that mental pressure to bursting point.
As Sonia told the Science Gallery audience, she knew on the start line of that 1996 Olympic final that she was in for a bad night. And it took another disastrous major championships, the 1997 Worlds in Athens, before she finally took stock and turned things around.
So how did Sonia turn things around? As she explained at the Fail Better event, she set herself some easier short-term goals that would restore her confidence and get her winning again – in short, she looked for races that she knew she would win. (Prof. Robertson drew a parallel with the ‘tomato can’ in U.S. boxing – a weak opponent used by a top-class boxer to maintain a winning feeling and bump up the win statistics.) She also spoke to people about her problems, and got advice from a life coach who helped her find a more positive frame of mind.
But more interestingly, Sonia seemed to have mentally locked that Atlanta experience in a box and put it away. As she tells the story, one day last year she found in a kitchen drawer her laminated accreditation from those Olympics – and realised it was the only thing still in her possession from those Games. That laminate is now on display in the Fail Better exhibition. And not only has she never watched that race, but even shudders at the thought of a photo from it appearing in her book.
Strangely, her agonising 1992 Olympic defeat doesn’t seem to trouble Sonia too much now. She hadn’t expected to figure in the medal chase, and she looks on that fourth place as validation of her status as a world-class athlete. Still, she told us what the fifth-place finisher, Patti Sue Plumer of the United States, said to her after the race: “I’m glad I didn’t finish fourth.”
On that point, Prof. Robertson mentioned research which suggests that bronze-medal winners are happier post-race than silver winners – the silver medalists compare themselves to the winner and are frustrated at coming so close to gold, while the bronze medalists are relieved to have got a medal at all.
To finish the event, we watched the final three laps of the 2000 Olympic 5,000 metres final where Gabriela Szabo of Romania held off O’Sullivan in a thrilling sprint down the home straight. Rewatching the race, the audience groaned slightly when Szabo’s break down the final back straight wasn’t covered quickly enough by O’Sullivan, leaving the Romanian with a decisive advantage.
It was fascinating to hear O’Sullivan pick out another small error she made, almost imperceptible to anyone watching – moving out too wide on the final bend, thereby losing further valuable metres to her rival.
What did McKiernan and O’Sullivan share in terms of dealing with their instances of relative failure? As I see it, they both have been able to rationalise the experience by focusing on the concrete events and outcomes rather than wallowing in any abstract feeling of injustice or self-pity. This allows them to analyse and talk openly about what happened, so that they could draw lessons for future success.
But at the same time, this also allows them to put those experiences away. You can’t keep mulling on a failure ad infinitum. At some stage you have to move on, either by just letting it go, by rationalising it as a lesson learned or (as with McKiernan’s silvers and O’Sullivan’s 1992 fourth place) as a success of sorts – or simply forgetting about it and shutting it up in the kitchen drawer.
From the Fail Better exhibition at the Science Gallery, here are Sonia O’Sullivan and Ian Robertson telling moderator Ray D’Arcy their insights on sporting failure:
Source: YouTube / Science Gallery Dublin