Five Fun Fails

Today is International Fail Day, and according to the National Today website:

“The idea around the day is to spread the argument that making mistakes and failing is normal and is even an invaluable part of a person’s growth and eventual success.”

The day aims to put a positive spin on failure, but in so doing it may still positions failure as a means to an end rather than the end in itself. Does failure always lead to eventual success? Is failure only valuable if it grows you? How might we be limited by the idea that a fitness fail is only ever a meaningful step towards a fitness win?

Questioning the failure/success binary is a recurrent thread in many FIFI posts. Sam, in particular, has written about failing better, failing small, and the okayness of failing. And, as Mina has written in a recent personal communication, “I love the idea that sometimes failure can be more about just discerning that something isn’t for you. The message of ‘you will always conquer eventually’ can get discouraging.”

To celebrate international fail day this year, five FIFI bloggers each share a fitness failure story not tied to eventual “success” or “growth.” Rather, they reflect on the ways that failures reveals our quirky patterns of behaviour, real-body expectations, non-preferences, and amusing life moments (even if they are funny only in retrospect).

Mina S.

My first marathon, I went out too fast, as they say. That means, I got overexcited and overconfident at the beginning and ran at a speed I could not sustain for the first 6 miles, after which my body started to meltdown, slowly at first and then wildly by the end. I finished more than 30 minutes off the time I’d hoped for. I was so mad at myself that I refused the medal and the red rose that the volunteers were giving out just past the finish line, because I determined that I didn’t “deserve” it.

I then proceeded to do the same thing in my second marathon. I recall being in the change room at a swim workout a few days after my second “failure” and someone asked me how it had gone. When I said that I’d “gone out too fast”, another woman commented, “Well, you’ll never do that again.” To which I had to say, “Uh, well, actually, that was my second time!” Sigh. I have a steep learning curve.

Diane H.

I make a conscious effort to do things I enjoy even if I am terrible at them. By any objective standard, I should just quit, but as long as I don’t injure myself or hate it, I count it as a success (especially if I learn something).

The closest to failure by that standard would be the time parents were invited to play ultimate frisbee with our kids. I was in my 50s, have no hand-eye coordination, definitely not a sprinter, barely understood the rules, and had troubles telling who was on my team. It was amusing but not fun by my usual standards.

Sam B.

I’ve had lots of failures in my fitness life. I started as an adult onset athlete and lots of physical activities don’t come that naturally to me. Some of the failures that make me laugh in retrospect happened at CrossFit in the year leading up to our fittest by 50 challenge where I was continually pushing boundaries and discovering limits.

I was so happy when I could finally do the RX rather than the modified box jump. I was jumping, not stepping up and jumping down, and I was doing the regulation height. But what I wasn’t prepared for was doing many, many of them in a row. After about 20 box jumps I should have switched to the modified version but I did not. Instead I jumped hard and missed gouging my shin in the process. I had a bruise that went down to my foot. Thereafter I switched to the modified version early on.

Same problem with wall ball throws. Again, I was happy to be doing the regulation weight. But we were doing a workout that had more than a hundred wall ball throws. Somewhere in the final 20, I missed and the ball crashed down and broke my glasses. My optometrist wondered what I’d done.

Same lesson learned–only this time I generalized. Just because you can do something once it doesn’t mean you can do it a zillion times. Keen personal trainers might say “you’ve done it once, you can do it again” but I am pretty sure that’s false. I’m out of the CrossFit world these days–obviously since knee rehab but also it’s not such a good fit for me–but I think this is a lesson anyone trying CrossFit should take to heart.

Elan P.

One year in junior high, I was the last person to make the girls’ basketball team. I wasn’t tall, but as a guard I showed promise with dribbling, passing, and assisting. However, any natural talent I may have shown in tryouts completely failed to manifest on the court. After I sunk a basket on our own net (my only points scored all season), I was benched for nearly all remaining games.

Is this a story about how I overcame my early failure to succeed as an amazing basketball player later in high school? Nope. I never played again. But I did volunteer as the manager of the girls’ high school team, keeping score and doing off-court admin things. In my non-athletic role I still contributed, traveled with the team (got our ears pierced together, etc.), and probably had more fun than if I had played.

Nicole P.

About 10 years ago (40ish), my friend, Karen, mentioned that she had signed up for a “Learn-to-ice-skate” class, which was geared towards adults. As a child, I stumbled on skates, held onto the boards, and then went for hot chocolate, so I figured maybe, now that I was an athletic adult, I would give skating a try again.

We arrived at the skating rink, early we thought, thinking we would have time to acclimatize. But soon we realized we had gotten the time wrong and the lesson was starting in about 5 min. So now, we were rushing. I quickly slapped on the skates in the change room and headed out with no time to think (or worry).

To get to the lesson, we had to make our way across the outdoor arena, over pavement, and a bridge, to the other side of the arena—in our skates. Well, I got as far as the bridge. A bridge without railings. Then my “fight or flight” response kicked. I froze.

So, I stood there on the railing-less bridge and tried to figure out if I could “get myself together” and keep moving. I couldn’t see how to get across the bridge in my state. I also didn’t want to hold Karen up, so I told her to go ahead.

I sat down on the bridge. Took off my skates. Went back to the change room and then headed over to the skating lesson to watch Karen and the rest of the class. I watched some class members being very hesitant to stand on the ice but trying it. I was a bit envious that they were able to try. I also felt relief that I was not on the ice.

At the end of the class, the instructor realized I was supposed to be in the class and nicely offered for me to come back to the next class. For a second, I thought I might, but knew I wasn’t coming back. I think the best thing to come out of it is to understand that maybe skating is just not for me and that is OK.


Happy International Failure Day 2021!

fail better' (samuel becket)
All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. –Samuel Beckett

Last month, I wrote about failing small.

Last year, I urged us to mark International Failure Day.

If it’s not obvious, I’m a fan of embracing failure. I think that for many of us–maybe women especially–fear of failing holds us back from trying. Being able to separate self-worth from success at a particular thing is an important lesson. In my university work I’m struck by it in terms of the how much grades matter to the choice of one’s academic major and how much this is divided along gender lines. The short version is that women are much more grade sensitive than men, gravitating to the subjects in which we do best. Men are much more grade resilient. They’ll keep taking a subject, even if they are failing some classes, if it’s the thing they really want to do. Failing a class has a different impact on men that it does on women.

Getting over my fear of failure is part of what’s made sports fun for me as an adult. I remember taking sailing classes at Northwestern University as a graduate student and not caring if we messed up and capsized. My ego was elsewhere! Bring on failure. Likewise, that same attitude made it possible for me to give rowing a try during our ‘fittest by 50’ challenge.

Another perspective is that we should we just ditch ‘failure’ talk altogether. You haven’t failed if you capsized a sailboat. You haven’t failed if you’ve failed one class. I didn’t fail that time I missed a box jump and cut my leg on a wooden box at CrossFit. And so on. Some people find ‘failure’ talk so demoralizing and awful that we should just give it up. I’m less sure about that. I think of it as looking at a failure for what it is, seeing where it fits in the grand scheme of things, seeing what lessons can be learned from it, and moving on.

There’s been a trend in my discipline lately of posting news of rejections (grants and awards we didn’t get, journal articles turned down by reviewer 1 and 2, etc) so that social media isn’t just full of success stories. I like that too. I share some failures there but not all.

How do you feel about failure, both the actual thing and the language we use to talk about it?

WRONG WAY. White print and large red sign. Palm trees poking out above. Photo by Kind and Curious on Unsplash