The Importance of Failure

Photo Courtesy: Abby Boone

By Katlynn Emaus, Swimming World College Intern

The saying “failure is not an option,” along with being cliche and overused, is completely inaccurate. True, in some cases like in the battle for Sparta, failure is not an option. But in sports, swimming particular, failure is most certainly an option.

Let’s say someone can do eight push ups. However, on the ninth one they fail and fall flat on their face. How is it beneficial to do eight push ups for the rest of their life? Albeit the best dang eight push ups anyone has ever seen, but they still can’t crank out number nine in fear of failure.

Photo Courtesy: G. John Mullen

Photo Courtesy: G. John Mullen

There is this fear that surrounds failure like a powerful, uneasy fog. Why? In times of failure there is the best opportunity to grow, to learn. Analyze the situation and take away not only positives, but negatives as well. Took your 200 breast out so fast you blacked out and your coach had to carry you away from the blocks? Now you know that you aren’t capable of taking your race out that fast quite yet.

In meets there is a common misconception that if you die during a race, every single spectator in the stands is watching just you, not the other seven swimmers, and laughing. Really. How ridiculous is that? The odds the people in the stands are paying attention to your specific heat of the 200 breast during a seven-hour long session, unless they are your parents, are pretty slim. Don’t be afraid to take a little risk. Who knows, maybe that’s how you should have been racing all along. Be willing to play around with race strategies.

In the powerful words of Einstein, ““insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” He describes exactly what a swimmer is doing by using the same race strategy and thinking that 17th time’s the charm will result in an Olympic Trials cut.

Failure, according to the head coach of RAYS Josh Fox, can reveal a lot about an athlete. When swimmers get down on themselves about failure, Fox tells them to “bring a light into that dark place.” Meaning once a swimmer is down on themselves, they have to get on that level of discomfort to see what they can do to push themselves, to push the limits, and maximize the learning from that failure.

“You can really see who is driven by their response to failure,” Fox said. “If things are easy then they fall apart. Look into yourself and see what you can do better; see how you can achieve your goals. If you go along with a comfortable pace you aren’t putting yourself and not allow yourself potential of success. Get comfortable pushing the limits.”


The fear of failure does not only apply to racing, but also to training, explained Fox. Often, when coaches write sets on the whiteboard, for most swimmers the set is over before the coach has time to say “on the top.” The intimidation of hard send offs, the amplitude of yards, or amounts of stroke work can complete dissolve the swimmer’s confidence before they even dive in. If a set is done correctly, failure should be present in one way or another. By going on a faster pace time and missing some of the send offs displays that the swimmer is pushing himself or herself. The next time the swimmer does the set, set a goal of making more repetitions before failure.

“Practices allow swimmers to try out different strategies and take different chances before trying to execute in a meet in a safe environment,” Fox explained. “They can develop a better recipe to be successful at a meet. It is also important for them to see that failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

It does not help to stay in your comfort zone and do the same send off each and every time. Do that ninth push up. Fall on your face every time until you can consecutively do nine push ups in a row. Swimmers must get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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