Defining Success and Handling Failure

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Welcome to this edition of the ‘Coach Doc’. I’m Dr. Wade Gilbert, coach education advisor to Human Kinetics.

There’s no escaping it, the losing will come. In life they say only two things are guaranteed – death and taxes. If you coach, you can add a third guarantee – your athletes will lose, and some of those losses will be heartbreaking. And that’s not always a bad thing.

Tens of millions of sport fans witnessed just such a loss for the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team when Wisconsin beat them in this year’s NCAA Tournament Final Four. The loss was Kentucky’s first in 39 games, and left the team just 2 wins shy of an unprecedented 40-0 season and a national championship. Two days later, Wisconsin suffered their own heartbreak loss in the tournament final.

Following both games, under a blanket of media attention, it was clear that players on the losing teams were devastated, with one Kentucky player going so far as to proclaim that “the season was a waste” because of the one loss.

These moments provide coaches with an opportunity to reflect on how they define success and how they prepare their athletes to cope with the inevitable failures encountered along the journey.

All great coaches and athletes want to win; they strive to compete and fully invest themselves in the endless preparation needed to put oneself in a position to win. A focus on embracing and learning from the quest to win – not the win itself – is a hallmark of the most successful and highly regarded coaches. Take the examples of Augie Garrido in college baseball and Mike Krzyzewski in college basketball, both 5-time national champions. Yet, each has lost nearly 40 national championships, including many tough losses in the final games.

In his often-cited definition of success legendary coach John Wooden believed that a focus on the things within your control, such as your preparation and your effort, were the real measures of success. Success is defined not as the number of championships won, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing you did your best.

How do you know if you did your best? For coach Krzyzewski it is evident when athletes play with enthusiasm. For coach Garrido it is evident when athletes are willing to risk losing. History shows us that the best coaches teach their athletes to define success as preparation, enthusiasm, and playing without fear of failure. This approach works because it empowers and liberates athletes, allowing them to focus on the things within their control and play uninhibited.

Despite a coach’s best effort to create environments that focus on preparation, enthusiasm, and playing without fear, setbacks are inevitable. Coaches should be proactive and prepare for how they will help their athletes and teams handle the failures when they come. In the moments immediately following the loss, athletes need emotional support. This is not the time to try to review ‘what went wrong’ or engage in a lengthy debriefing session about the game. This is the time for emotional healing and support; tough losses sting.

The best coaches acknowledge the hurt and let the athletes process their emotions. This should be done in a private setting such as a locker room – this is sacred time and space reserved for the coach and athletes. Coaches should use the time before leaving the locker room or boarding the bus to let athletes vent emotions, and then leave them with a positive uplifting message. This could include sharing a list of strengths noticed in the competition and reminding them about the many positive moments achieved through the journey.

The time for analyzing and fixing the errors will come later in the time leading up to the next practice. Coach Garrido’s ‘formula for dealing with failure’ provides a good template for all coaches, regardless of sport or competition level, on how to regroup and prepare for the next opportunity to succeed. The formula includes six steps:

1. Acknowledge the failure.
2. Analyze what went wrong.
3. Consider your successful recoveries from past failures and setbacks.
4. Make the adjustments you need to make based on what you learned.
5. Keep adjusting until it works.
6. Focus on doing your best in each and every moment.

Great coaches, and their athletes, are competitive by nature; they all dream of winning championships. The harsh reality though is that few will ever achieve the pinnacle of their sport. The key to success and a long and fulfilling career as a coach is to teach athletes to focus on their preparation, approach every practice and game with enthusiasm, and play without fear of losing. The best way to build a team of athletes who embody these championship characteristics is to model them yourself as a coach.

Sources Garrido, A., & Smith, W. (2011). Life is yours to win: Lessons forged from the purpose, passion and magic of baseball. New York: Touchstone. [see chapter 4: The game of failure]

Gilbert, W., Nater, S., Siwik, M., & Gallimore, R. (2010). The Pyramid of Teaching Success in Sport: Lessons learned from applied science and effective coaches. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 1, 86-94.

Hamilton, B. (2015, April 5). Sports Illustrated. Loose and can’t lose: Wisconsin upsets Kentucky to reach title game. Retrieved from

Jacobs, B. (2004). The message of Mike Krzyzewski: Coach K’s little blue book: Lessons from college basketball’s best coach. Toronto: Sports Media.

Pells, E. (2015, April 5). One and done: Wisconsin ends Kentucky’s undefeated run. Associated Press. Retrieved from

Wooden, J., & Jamison, S. (1997). Wooden: A lifetime of observations and reflections on and off the court. Chicago: Contemporary. [see part II: Success, achievement, competition]

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