Learning From Failure

by: Matt Dixon

Triathlon is a sport of highs and lows; therefore, it is extremely easy to build a case against yourself when things don't go well, just like it is easy to paint yourself as a hero when you are celebrating a breakthrough performance. As a coach, I aim to avoid doing either, and recently I found myself looking at the less enjoyable side of looking through the rubble at a series of weekend performances that left a lot to be desired. It was one of those weekends, which started with the news that Sarah Piampiano had a nasty bike crash upon arrival in Cairns to prepare for the IRONMAN Asia-Pacific Championship. As we chatted through the recovery process (she was fine, thankfully, and finished 2nd overall!), my weekend continued across continents from Slovakia to North Carolina to Canada. Unfortunately, each PPF professional that raced had a pretty dismal experience. By the end of the weekend, I felt like I was sitting in the ashes of a promising weekend of racing with nothing left but rubble. As personally as I take the coaching process, this was not the most pleasant feeling. 

If this weekend were to happen a few years ago, and it has happened like this before, I would be in a complete tizzy, questioning my worth, expertise and methods as a coach. I would have struggled to think objectively, and certainly failed to clearly separate each performance and review on its own merits. Today, however, I realize that these types of weekends happen, as much as I hate them and wish they did not. Failing is not pleasant, but it is normal, and there is often much to learn from it. When looking at the big picture of last weekend's performance, it was grim reading; however, when reviewing each athlete individually, it was a very different story. One outcome was explained by a bike crash (crashes happen), while another poor performance came off the back of a series of great performances, but also a continental transition of location and racing venues in the midst of a build for a major IRONMAN. The remaining two performances, however, required real investigation and review by both coach and athlete. In order to properly analyze the results, I had to ask some difficult questions:

  1. Why did the athlete feel flat?
  2. How is the athlete's confidence, and how is that impacting their ability to execute?
  3. Is there an underlying fatigue level that needs to be addressed?
  4. What, if anything, do we need to evolve or change to create performance relative to potential?

Personally, I don't believe that it is ever prudent to dismiss poor results as one of those things that "just happen", rather I believe that they are always worthy of review and investigation, embracing an open mind to change aspects of training, race prep, or race execution. This process isn't a blame game, or a chance to shift responsibility from athlete to coach. It is a team driven, honest exercise with the goal of re-finding results and performance. With this in mind, I often look for trends to help me get a better understanding of the athlete's result:

  1. Was the race performance parallel to training performance?
  2. Is the athlete training great, but racing poorly?

In the case of last weekend, the latter was true, meaning the major areas of focus going forward need to center around:

  • Confidence and belief
  • Race preparation in the last couple of weeks prior to the event, allowing for full freshness on race day
  • Race day planning and execution

It was a tough weekend, but we know that these don't happen very often. These weekends force us to step back and look at everything, and I do, but I also neither have a drop in confidence or belief in the athletes themselves, nor my capacity to facilitate performance. Instead, we hone in on the individual and their needs to set up success. We fix what is needing to be fixed, but don't radically change our approach or belief system because of a single tough result. 

We should all be given license and freedom to fail sometimes, and if you have a tough result, I recommend you deploy a similar mindset. Success is coming, so keep working hard and fixing what is needed. Just make sure not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Matt Dixon