In many settings in our culture, ‘failure’ is a personally-negative word, with unpleasant psychological or social implications. But in engineering, and in particular, in research and design, failure is an important, impersonal, and even positive output of the development process. 

When we are in an engineering process to make a device or system better, we need to put it through demanding tests to find out what is working and what is not working well. We need to subject that thing to stresses that expose the weak spots so that those can be made stronger. When failures occur in the system, we note when, what, and how that failure occurred in order to learn from it and apply those lessons in the next step of development. If there were no failures, there would be little learning and improvement made. We subject things to demanding tests because we want the components of the device or system to become proportionally strong and work well together so that they hold up together under the greatest demands for how they will be used.  Therefore, tests are designed to push that device or system to various kinds of failure.  We don’t avoid failure, we seek it out for learning purposes. 

In this context of athletic training, I intend this sense of the word failure. It is a dispassionate, objective observation that some component of your performance system did not meet the objective or the standard that was assigned or chosen. If for our or our athlete’s sensitivity we need to use a different word that is fine, but we retain the scientific/engineering meaning. 

Photo by Petr Slováček on Unsplash

In training, during a demanding set, the athlete would have both a quantity and a quality objective. The assignment includes a distance (continuous or divided into intervals), an intensity (perceived or measured effort or output level), and at least one technical quality (like maintaining some specific aspect of one’s best form) that the athlete is challenged to maintain. Success is achieving ALL OF THOSE performance objectives nearly to the end of the set. If one sacrifices technical form to make it through to the end of the set they have failed at the task. If one maintains technical form to the end by lowering the distance and or intensity to do it, they have failed. Failure is when one or more aspects of performance fall below the standard assigned. The ‘threat of failure’ is when the athlete feels they are about to drop below that standard and their attention is alerted to it. A ‘soft failure’ is when the athlete drops below the standard, but with renewed effort and concentration, they are able to correct and resist failure a bit longer. A ‘hard failure’ is when no amount of effort brings them up to the standard again.  Training time spent around soft failures is the sweet spot of developing strength around one’s skills. Encountering hard failure tells the athlete it is time to stop the challenge for the day. 

In most training activities, true performance capability is expressed in strength and skill together. Under sufficient challenge, a failure is going to appear in one of those and then, sooner or later, it will lead to failure in the other. A loss of strength will wear down motor control, and a loss of motor control will provoke faster fatigue. The key to learning from failure is to notice which one of these came first, what specifically failed, and how. It is not enough to go into a challenging set, encounter failure, and then walk away without observing any details about it – that would be discouraging. The only way to benefit from failure is to study it. Note when it happened, what specific aspect of strength or skill dropped, what were the warning signs it was coming, and how it unfolded. 

Then you should reflect upon the experience with an impersonal, engineer-like mindset until you identify some feature and some point of intervention early enough in the activity that you can do something to correct or protect when you try this same challenge again. It is just information about the state of your body and its resources this day, after all. If it was a soft failure, then double your effort and concentration to delay or avoid the failure in the next moment. If it was a hard failure, then apply the lesson learned the next time you do this challenging set. 


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