Great Competitors Fail

Basketball is Psychology XXXIV

“Victorious is the person who knows how to make stepping stones out of stumbling stones.” - John C. Maxwell



We don’t know how to fail. Helicopter parenting and 8th place trophies have tried to shelter us from failing. As a result, when we do get benched, lose, or miss the game winner, we don’t know how to deal with it.

Michael Jordan knows how to fail. He didn’t make varsity as a sophomore, and it was the best thing that could’ve happened; he learned how to respond to failure.

In his commercial, he proudly announces, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. I have failed over and over and over again, and that is why I succeed.”

Notice how he’s implying he succeeded because of his failures, not in spite of them.

Learning How To Fail

If failure is the “key to success”, then why do so many of us try to avoid it? Why do we believe failure is bad? Why do we think “failure is not an option”?

As a result of this mentality, some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation are now teaching classes on failure.

Princeton refers to failure as success and innovation’s sibling. The class description states,

“Failure is like gravity- a subtle, pervasive, but inevitable fact of life. Students are fixated on success, but success has a less well-understood sibling, which is often a precursor and prerequisite for that success: FAILURE.

Although we may treat failure as a regrettable event, it has the potential to become a strategic resource, invaluable in its ability to show us- sometimes painfully and usually uncomfortably- what we don’t yet know, but need in order to succeed.”

The truth is, failure is inevitable and it’s not just part of basketball, it’s a big part of basketball. Take a look at the NBA’s all-time leaders in missed shots:

1. Kobe bryant: 13,766

2. John Havlicek: 13,417

3. Karl Malone: 12,682

4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 12,470

5. Michael Jordan: 12,345

These are some of the greatest players of all time, and their average shooting percentage is 48. They missed more shots than they made, but they didn’t stop shooting; they accept it, learn from it, and keep shooting.

People who have a growth mindset, don’t even think they’re failing, they know it’s part of the process, so they call failure learning. Kobe exemplified this when he said, “Failure doesn’t exist. What does that even mean?”

Responding to Failure

No one goes through their basketball career with no losses and no missed shots. Expect setbacks, and understand our natural psychological response to failure so you know how to fight back.

Failure can distort our perception.

Failure makes the same goal seem less attainable and makes you devalue your abilities. If you miss a shot, you can’t convince yourself you are a bad shooter, rather you should be thinking about what you learned from that miss and what adjustments need to be made so you can make the next shot.

Failure can convince you to give up.

Often times, failure can leave an emotional wound. Our brain doesn’t like that, so our brains are going to tell us not to try, so that we won’t get wounded again. Most fail and then think, “I tried and failed. There’s nothing I can do to succeed, I’ll quit.” so they can avoid failure. And it works, they protect their short-term ego and avoid failure, but they also avoid success. It’s impossible to succeed if you quit.

But, you can fight back. The healthiest response to failure is to focus on variables you can control.

This is the benefit to failing. When you fail, what matters is what you learn and then do next, not the past- that’s out of your control, but you always control your response. If you had a bad game, you can control how early you show up to practice the next day, how much film you watch, how focused you are in practice, and how much effort you give. When you win and score 50 points, you're a lot less likely to refocus on the details help you get better. Failure gives you insight you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Failing is a Good Thing

Competitors fail. High achievers fail. Innovators fail. Record-breakers fail.

If you’re not failing, you’re probably not pushing yourself enough. If you never mess up in ball-handling drills, you’re probably only going at a comfortable speed. To get better you have to get out of that comfortable speed. If you never fail when you’re maxing out in the weightroom, you can’t find out the edge of your capabilities. If you’re not failing, you are not reaching your full potential, you’re limiting yourself. If you want to be a great basketball player, compete in everything; you will fail and that’s more than okay, it’s a sign you’re going beyond your perceived limits- that’s how you get better.

You make things better and improve faster when you fail.

A ceramics teacher proved this when he had his class mold clay into pots. He asked half of his class to focus on making the best possible pot and he asked the other half of the class to make as many pots as possible. They were both given equal amounts of time to work.

The group focused on producing a high quantity, had much higher quality pots.