Facing Reality – Handling Disappointment

Like many people I have been relishing the feats and records at the Beijing Olympics this last week.

The results have been a Goal Setting 101 course on Focus, Action; Repetition, and Celebration.

However, I am more interested in seeing how the athletes have handled their disappointments; just missing a medal, having a disastrous on-the-day performance, injuries; or seemingly inexplicable losses.

The training and 4 years of mental and physical torture these athletes have put themselves through to get to the Olympics in the first instance can only be celebrated.

Just being there is a huge result.

For some though, the heavy burden of expectation of family, friends, their country and themselves have not been met. I have noted some commentators calling a silver medal a failure. (I also notice these commentators are not exactly sylph like and honed). Such a burden of carrying the expectation of others shows in the faces of the athlete who didn’t quite make the medal placing’s, or go beyond the heats, or maybe just missed out on the gold.

The range of reactions and responses has been vast. From the tears of the runner so overcome she couldn’t face the TV interviewer, through the absolute agony of disbelief and self flagellation of the weightlifter who couldn’t lift the bar; to the calm grace and self acceptance of the captain of the swimming team who missed out on a personal milestone by half an arms length.

Having the ability see “failure” on the day as a stepping stone to the next performance is not only an indicator of emotional maturity, it is essential to creating long term success. We are not our successes, we have success; we create success. It does not define us as people. Ask Michael Phelps’ mum who he is, she won’t talk about his medals, she will talk about the son she knows, as only a mother can.

Equally and even more importantly we are not our failures; we have failures; we stumble; and we are not failures as a result. Each stumble is an opportunity to reflect on what happened; what our contribution was; what we need to adjust; and where we can change to be more ready next time.

Listening to a smiling athlete being interviewed, out of breath from the effort and saying “I gave it all I had, I did my best, they were better on the day” is a joy.

To be able to celebrate what we have done, our efforts, our focus and our achievements is a precious gift to be treasured.

Off the field and out of the pool, back in our own lives we have successes, some big some small, some unnoticed and some celebrated.

Equally we have stumbles, failures, disastrous on-the-day performances and inexplicable upsets. How we handle each of these defines how we face the next hurdle or opportunity. Will we curl up fetal like in the corner hurting more from the self flagellation than from the events themselves or will we be gracious and self accepting? Will we retire in a fit of self loathing or will we acknowledge our limitations on the day and make a plan to change for the next event.

Our long term success depends on us self reflecting, learning and growing stronger. We build our recovery and growth muscles from the stumbles and the getting up not from the wins and successes.

I was humbled by the story of a colleague who shared a family tragedy with me a few weeks ago. His footnote was that without the hardship in his life he would not be the man he is today. I cannot agree or disagree – I don’t know. I can only appreciate his journey and reflect that in the moment of his deepest anguish no one could have told him who he would be as a result of his suffering. Besides being inappropriate in the extreme, this is not what any of us need to hear in the middle of the tough times.

We come through our failures stronger for the learning or weaker for the lack of self acceptance.

Each path is a choice, choose wisely.

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