Team long run

Failing, Failure, Confidence, and Success

“Kids who experience regular success doing something hard are less likely to give up when things get tough.”

When I said that, I realized I’d pretty much summarized Team Long Run’s reason for being.

I was riding in the car last week with a new friend, and he asked about Team Long Run.  As he watched the pines and ponds slide by, he had a lot of good questions, questions that caused me to clarify my own thinking about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

He’d asked, basically, “Why running?”  Please refer to my answer, the first sentence above.  It’s about confidence.

As a coach, I find that confidence is misunderstood.  People often confuse confidence with overconfidence, or an inflated sense of self.  Overconfidence always got me in trouble… it still causes me to pull out a wedge when I should hit an 8 iron.

Confidence, however, is a reasonable and sturdy expectation that you can succeed at what you’re attempting.  Sturdy is important, especially when the ground begins to shake.  When, not if.

It’s why good and thoughtful practice is so important.   My experience is in coaching distance runners, so I’d like to look at it together through that lens.

Every good coach I know designs training that inspires confidence.  Some do it intentionally; some have just fallen into it by chance.  It’s not writing workouts that are easy (thereby ensuring success) it’s creating moments and situations that are stressful enough to push a runner outside of their comfort zone.  That’s the art of it-  navigating the waters between allowing a kid to fail and giving them a chance to succeed.

It’s important to distinguish, at this point, the difference between failing and failure.  Nobody wants to see anybody fail, especially kids.  Failure has finality to it.  Failing, however, isn’t a bad thing at all.  Failing can mean you’re still at it, even though things don’t necessarily look promising.  We’ve all had moments when we were failing, but continued effort turned things around.  Failing didn’t end in failure.

As a coach, I intentionally created conditions where kids would likely feel as though they were failing. Sometimes it didn’t work out, and we would figure out why together.  Maybe it was my fault, and the athlete really didn’t have a chance to succeed.  That’s bad coaching, and I would learn from my mistake.  Maybe the athlete gave up when they really didn’t have to.  That’s harder, a matter of self-examination; sometimes uncomfortable, always useful.   Failing, one of us would have to do something differently.

In their book Empower, John Spencer and A.J. Juliani put it this way: “Actually, we don’t want students to fail. We want them to succeed through iterations.”  Iterations.  Trying it again and again until we get it right.  Isn’t that what we admire in each other and hope to instill in our kids? Resiliency and grit.

I understand that to mean failing isn’t failure until I give up.  I’ve been trying to walk straight up a nearby mountain without stopping to catch my breath for weeks now.  Each time I walk it, I get a little higher before I stop, and I get a little faster.  I haven’t succeeded yet, but even in failing (maybe even because of failing) my confidence is growing.  I know I’ll get it.

So, in my experience as a coach and as an athlete, failing almost always led to deeper self-confidence.  Rewind back to my friend’s question, “Why running?” The running challenge is immediate, simple, repeatable, and measurable. Running is almost infinitely adjustable and, as a challenge, that characteristic makes it nearly universal in its utility as well.  In one afternoon I can meet a group of ten kids of varying background and ability and give them ten different “iterations” (or workouts) that net the same growth in confidence, simply through running.

Beautiful, isn’t it? All we need is some open space and some decent shoes.

Circling back, we know we can handle a tough situation because we’ve handled tough situations before.  The question is, do the challenges or crises have to be related? Does successfully completing a 5k for the first time make it easier for us to handle the anxiety of taking a test in a tough subject?  Does it help us bounce back after losing a job, or losing a loved one?  I think it does.  If we’re consciously developing grit and strengthening resilience, we are building stronger, happier people… people better equipped to face whatever chance or circumstance might throw at them.  Confidence makes it more natural and reflexive to keep trying.  To paraphrase Spencer and Juliani, failing doesn’t end up in failure.

I think I’ll go for a run.