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It's About Learning, Not Just Experience

I used to work with a volleyball club who had a bunch of different slogans printed on the back of their practice shirts that were supposed to be motivational or inspirational. While I am not much of one for motivation or inspirational quotes, one of the quotes printed on the back of one of their shirts stated the following:

"We don't lose. We either win or we learn."

This quote has stuck with me because I find it translatable to nearly every facet of life, but it resonates highly within the realm of athletics and coaching.

It does not matter who you are, or whether you're in the athletic realm or the business world, at some point you are going to lose. You are going to fail. You are going to miss the mark, regardless of whether or not you put the mark there yourself. You will never make every basket, lift, goal, or job interview. Failure is essentially guaranteed. But what really matters is what you do with it.

"You either win or you learn."

The biggest challenge then, when confronted with failure or loss at any point, is to turn that failure or loss into a learning moment. This is where many struggle. They lose or miss their mark, and shut down, quit, or runaway from the loss. They don't reflect on it. They don't go back and revisit that failure to see where things went wrong and identify the things that were not executed well that would have allowed them to succeed. They fail to learn because they wallow in the loss, instead of uncomfortably confront the scenario.

I've been fortunate to experience this multiple times in my life. When I was wrestling in high school, I lost to the same kid six matches in a row. We wrestled each other twice per season for three straight seasons and I lost every time. That is, until I finally quit sulking and revisited those losses. In reviewing the videos from all six of those losses, I found a weak spot in his game. I found the thing that I had missed in all the other matches I'd wrestled against him in, and learned how to counter it. We met again in a seventh matchup as seniors, in a "do-or-die" situation, where the winner gets another shot at continuing their season and the loser's high school career ends. Having taken the time to revisit my losses, I ended up with that extra shot, and his season ended. Another time happened during my first sanctioned weightlifting meet, where I decided to open up my Snatch at 98% of my 1RM, and bombed out in the first three attempts I had. It sucked, but I learned to pick better weight selections for future meets.

But I would be remiss if this just laid out a story of how you can turn loss around. In order to turn a loss or failure into a learning experience, we need to have a framework with which to view it and value the situation. If we have a framework to help us learn, we end up winning more in the end.

  1. Identify the controllable and uncontrollable factors: list them out or simply identify them. If it's a factor within your control, you need to understand how you lost control of it and identify the changes you need to make to ensure you have better control over them.

  2. Identify how the loss makes you feel: while I'm personally not the most sentimental type, it's important to understand how emotions factor into performance. We're not robots, so we have to understand our emotions. If loss makes our lives crumble and we can't focus or live normally, we may need to take a step back and redefine our values and why we do what we do (remember, these extend beyond sport).

  3. Make actual changes: this is the learning part. You can experience loss and even review the loss end over end, or until you're blue in the face. But you won't turn it into a true learning experience until you make actual changes to how you approach the task at hand.

This is also a process that can be optimized through guidance. We are wired to think negatively, and when we review loss to turn it into a learning experience, we can get focused on negative emotions and the circumstances surrounding the loss. This is where a coach comes into play. When I reviewed videos of my wrestling matches, my coach was sitting next to me watching and pointing out stuff. When I missed my attempts at my first weightlifting meet, I hired a coach the next time, who walked me through the attempt selection process and helped point out where I went wrong.

So the next time you lose, or you don't make the mark you set out for yourself, take time to dive back into that experience. Seek out help and coaching. And learn from the losses, and turn them into wins.

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