How to Use Failure to Your Advantage

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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How to Use Failure to Your Advantage

We’ve all had a bad race — or one where we finished just off the podium — and come into the final stretch already feeling defeated. Most of us can admit to shedding a tear or two in frustration as a result. After all, we can’t win every single race. When it comes to dealing with failure like a boss, Simon Marshall, PhD, and co-author of the recently released sports psychology book “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion,” offers some words of wisdom.


It’s not that you should smile and move on after your race didn’t go according to plan, Marshall says. It’s completely reasonable to take time to wallow. “When it just happened, it’s very raw, and the worst thing to hear is ‘there are plenty of other races,’ that kind of thing,” he says. “Understand your feelings, and don’t judge yourself for them.” If you feel like you let yourself down, explore that — with a sports psychologist, a friend or in a journal. “You can be in a funk, you can have some time to grieve that perceived failure,” he adds. So wallow away — then, get over it.


It’s our tendency to start planning our next race, or deconstruct what went wrong in this race, when we have a bad day. Taking a minute to jot down notes for things like gut issues with sports drinks, or a pain in your pinky toe is absolutely fine, but don’t let failure cloud your perception of your training and next races on the calendar. Think of it like being a little tipsy after a party: It’s not the time to call your ex, just like post-race isn’t time to completely overhaul your training or sign up for a race the next day. Take some time until you can be objective about your training and calendar before making changes.



“We have a lot of different voices about what failure is, and we need to figure out where they’re coming from,” Marshall says. That might mean we’ve grown up with a parent who told us second place was the first loser or maybe it’s from just missing that Boston Marathon qualifier by seconds. Maybe we used to finish on the podium at every race, and now, we’re finishing outside the top 10. The problem with any of these versions of failure is simple: We can’t control what the other people are doing any given day. Marshall reminds clients that their competitors are outside of the realm of control and because of this, setting goals like “podium in my age group” are unfairly weighted, depending on the strength of the field.


“You had a bad run. That doesn’t mean that you as a person are a failure,” Marshall says. We tend to internalize outward failures, and that damages our psyche and sporting career. Marshall measures success with a simple question: Did you go out there and race to the best of your ability on that given day? This doesn’t mean hitting your PR, it means giving your all, which may not be PR level that day. It’s a lot more fun to consider all of your races successful than it is to consider all but a select few as failures, right?



Marshall has a client who he actually forces to ‘fail.’ He sends her to races and instructs her to start a minute or so back from the pack — i.e she waits 60 seconds after the race start of a 10K — and then to start and finish as hard as she can. This way, he’s removed her expectations about winning (and, really, her ability to do so), and she can be freer in her run, taking risks and relearning the joy of simply racing and passing through other people in the field. So, if you find you can’t enjoy the competition because you go crazy at the prospect of failing or you’re freaking out about not making it to the podium, consider starting from the back and not allowing yourself the chance to win, just to remember the feeling of simply “racing.”


Whether you succeed or fail, the biggest thing you’re probably not doing is taking the time post-race to really feel those feelings and embrace that race day, rather than planning what’s next. “As humans, we’re seekers,” Marshall says. “No sooner is something over, we’re looking over the horizon at what’s next, how we can go better, go faster. But we need to wallow in our successes and our failures. That’s what mindfulness means: looking at what you’ve accomplished, and taking the time to appreciate it and enjoy it.”

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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