Sometimes a failure is just what one needs on the playing field to inspire greater victory. The ‘wake up call’.
As the rowing season finishes up for the year, this lesson hit home this year with the results of the biggest race of the year by the team of 14 year old girl rowers that I coach for our local school, Sir William Borlase Grammar School. They are the strongest group I have seen in my 6 years coaching and we all knew they had a real shot at a national medal. They had trained and prepared exceptionally well. And on the big day, tragedy and horror, within the first half one girl had fallen off her seat and another had caught a boat stopping ‘crab’. Despite great rowing, they were in last place. That could have been the end of it, but instead the girls got it together and seemed to find guts and determination that they didn’t even know was there to power through a come from behind upset into the Bronze medal third place position. Some cheering fans reflected that if only the mishaps hadn’t happened, they could have finished even higher. But my fellow coaches and I agreed that the mishaps actually sparked something deep inside them that spurred the truly exceptional performance in the final 500 metres. Speaking to one of the girls afterwards, she acknowledged that when the mistakes happened, they all just got so mad that they dug deeper than they ever thought possible.
The event evoked my own personal experience with sports failure that ended up in the sports highlight of my life. When I was at Ipswich High School, I played American football. As it happens, our team had been one blessed with an exceptional array of talent. For years as we came up through the grades, everyone thought we would be one of the great teams that my hometown of Ipswich had ever had. When we got to our senior year, we indeed notched up big win after big win, until one cold and wet Saturday we met our arch rivals – Newburyport – who too had a very strong team that year. After a long, arduous battle back and forth, the Newburyport team scored a touchdown that put them 1 point over us in the final minutes. It seemed as if our dreams of not just that day, or even the season, but several years of anticipation had been dashed. However, given the vagaries of tournament maths, it turned out that with the remainder of our season flawless and a few other breaks by other contenders, the grand finale State championship bowl selection turned out to be, yes, Ipswich vs. Newburyport. The final score: Ipswich 54, Newburyport 13. The game was a complete, dominating romp by us. The key? The bone-shaking trauma of our loss a few months before. That failure stirred something powerful inside us to leave absolutely nothing to chance on the big bowl day.