Jeff Hastings is a former US National ski jumping champion whom I met covering the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. He’s worked color for NBC and ABC at the last 7 Olympic Games, and has a lot to say about drawing the line between success and failure in sport – especially as we embark on another season of winter sport. In this piece that originally appeared in the Valley News in Lebanon, N.H., he calls on Good4sports readers to weigh in with their views.
In simplest terms (and I believe it is quite simple)- every successful athletic arc needs just two things: a motor and a compass. The motor to drive and compass to steer. In my experience the only effective motor is inner passion and the best compass is, frankly, failure. Success is often confused as a compass, steering an athlete toward greater heights, but it is in fact a motor, just not a very useful or long lived one as it tends to dissipate in the presence of failure. And the irony is that much of sport these days is driven not by an athlete’s own inner passion but external sources like coaches and parents to whom failure is, ironically, personal and to be avoided at all costs. So right out of the gate for many athletes the motor is in the wrong vehicle and one of your biggest tools, your compass, is pegged not as an asset but a liability.
Enough of the metaphors.
Look, success is wonderful but how much do you really learn from it? The best lessons are derived from failures. It’s complicated when failure can be humiliating and come with other negative consequences. Even without the judgment of peers, coaches and parents, it’s natural to fear failure. But you have to embrace it and learn from it. Failures are the guardrails on the path to success. They’re the only thing that’s clear, that really mark the edge of the trail. Nike says pain is weakness leaving the body. From my perspective failure is experience- valuable experience- entering.
Yes, success shows you one way, but who knows if it’s really the best way. The top athletes in any field are usually bringing something new and creative to the game, they’re adding their own twist. An athlete who is afraid of failing, who seeks to say within a safety zone, has imposed their own ceiling; has necessarily put an artificial boundary around their potential.
Jan Boklov was a Swedish ski jumper in the 80’s and 90’s who was just coming on as I was on my way out. The kid was un-athletic, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, and had the worst style on the hill- he couldn’t keep his skis parallel. But every once in a while he’d have a jump that was meters farther than the rest of the field. It turned out that his unorthodox style was actually aerodynamically superior to the standard style. His failure to adhere to the norms of the time was eventually the source of his success. Within 3 years every jumper on the world cup tour was using Boklov’s “V” style. (I frankly doubt Boklov’s V-style would have survived a more rigorous, self impressed national program. Very likely an Austrian or German program would have beaten it out of him and the world would never have met Jan or his style. The weak Swedish program didn’t have a depth to leave him at home or the confidence to insist he conform.)
I’m not saying every experiment is going to revolutionize a sport or that anyone should seek failure; just don’t be scared of it. Understand that failure is a critical part of success and that the less you fear it the more you can learn from it and the faster and farther you’ll progress.
Just accepting that failure is part of the regime doesn’t make it easy to live with. My first trip abroad with the US Ski Team was to Finland, a country that loves ski jumping. I was ready to test myself against the world’s best but it turned out they were elsewhere. What was left were pot-bellied 40 year old locals who pulled in from work 15 minutes before the event, finished the beer they’d been drinking, stubbed out a cigarette, and proceeded to kick my butt. This event played out again and again over two weeks in cities and towns all across northern Finland. It was thoroughly humiliating. Anybody who had any sense would have come home and moved on to something else. And the fact is at that point any dream I had of being successful on the international stage was dashed, but I also had no intention of leaving a sport I so loved. The point is this- progress is not linear, there will be difficult times- times where your ultimate goal seems completely unattainable- and you need something that’s going to carry you through the these times; a source of energy that will keep you driving forward regardless of which direction you’re actually progressing. Inner passion is the only thing that I’ve seen with the power to sustain an athlete long term. Statement of obvious, right? I agree, but am still stunned at how many young athletes are driven into sports and situations by the passions and interests of external forces. I don’t believe you can jump-start someone else’s passion with a push. Or at least I haven’t seen it.
But getting to the point- I was asked for something about dealing with competitive pressure. There are certainly people who are built for competitive pressure. I don’t count myself among them and credit the above- passion and a willingness to fail- for improving my results. I took 4 Olympic jumps in my life so the sum total of my Olympic competitive career is maybe 90 seconds. Not a huge sample size. Like everyone else I tried to kid myself that it was just another event and true enough it was the same competitors and similar venue but- for the first time in my life- the world was watching. There are some things you can’t hide from a central nervous system. When I kicked into the tracks for my first jump I was literally numb. Like I’d never been before (or since). My whole body. I went through the physical motions that had been drilled into me and things went fine but it was incredibly disconcerting. Each jump got better (a rare case of linear improvement) as nerves settled. But the point is this- very few people can immediately adjust to a new competitive situation (witness the first quarter of any Super Bowl). This is the bad news for many of us. But the good news is, over time, if you’re willing to learn from failure and have the drive to keep trying, there’s virtually no one who won’t succeed eventually.
Polly Anna is Jeff Hastings, author of the Guest Post. He’s a four-time US National Ski Jump champion. At the 1984 Olympics, he finished in fourth place — still the best-ever showing by an American in ski jumping.