Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t hold back the tears. It was one of the very few times I cried in front of my mother growing up.
When I was a little kid my grouchy next door neighbour (whose name was literally “Oscar”) saw me crying and told me that “real men don’t cry.” And ever since then, I did everything in my power to keep from crying.
But I had zero control in this moment; the water works began before we left the parking lot.
I had just “failed“ to make the rep soccer team that I had been a part of for the previous 6 years. Even though I was just a mediocre player, soccer was part of my 16-year-old identity, and it stung. My only options were to play house league (i.e. non-competitive) for a year, or to just quit all together. While I could not imagine a life without soccer, playing house league with a bunch of uncommitted kids was even more difficult to fathom.
My mom tried to search for a silver lining, but it was pretty hard to see how anything good was going to come of this. All I could think about was how unfair this was.
They were merging our team with one from another club that year. And while our club’s coach was going to coach the team, the other club’s coaches were selecting it. I got injured at the beginning of tryouts and could barely hobble, let alone run around and kick a ball.
It was unfair that I couldn’t demonstrate my ability.
It was unfair that the decision makers didn’t know me.
It was unfair that my coach didn’t step in and say something.
Interestingly, the whole unfair notion is a somewhat recent syndrome.
Modern science and technology appear to have tilted the scales from fate to our control. We are therefore surprised when things don’t turn out the way we expect.
200 years ago, it was not surprising for someone to cut their hand and die 30 days later. When there was a drought, people literally starved. When someone lost a jousting match, they often died.
Bad things didn’t seem so bad or surprising, they were just normal. The unpredictable world fostered humility (i.e. a modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance).
It gave us qualities that helped us deal with setbacks and difficulties:
- Openness; and
Now, when we get cut, we apply some polysporin, throw on a band-aid, and if after a few days it’s not getting better, we see a doctor and they sort it out for us. Now, when there’s a drought, we rely on food from other parts of the world. Now, when people have a bad game or race, they line up again a few hours or days later.
We now have so much influence over our environment and circumstances, that we often think we have control. When we get blindsided by things we can’t control, we kick and scream and label them as “unfair.”
So there I was, sobbing in the passenger seat. What on earth was I going to do now? “Maybe now you can join a track club and focus on running” my mom said. I had run on my school track and cross country teams since grade 3 and was pretty good at it. For years, parents and competitors had been telling me that I should join a track club. They said I had a lot of potential.
What my mom was saying made sense, but I didn’t want to hear it. I had played soccer my whole life, and I loved it. Track had always been secondary. I did it mostly because I was good at it.
10 months later, I finally stopped feeling sorry for myself and joined a track club.
Practices for both my school and club track teams started in March. Having played on school and club soccer teams before, I was accustomed to going from one practice to another. So naturally, I started attending 2 track practices a day. I quickly learnt that was a bad idea.
During my second week of practice, I got injured. What I thought was initially a day-to-day injury, turned into a week-to-week injury that wouldn’t go away. For 2 months, I “failed” to make it to either set of practices.
Not a great start. But this time, my ignorant belief that I would start running again in a few days kept me from diving back into the whole unfair story again. I didn’t get caught up in the morality of the injury; of labeling it as bad or unfair. It was what it was. I dealt with it.
Eventually the injury went away, and I was able to qualify for the Provincial (Canadian equivalent of State) High School Championships.
I had previously focused on the 1500m event but, because of my injury, I didn’t have enough time build up the endurance I needed to be competitive. So, I decided to focus on the 800m that year.
Despite running a personal best time in the 800m prelims at provincials, I “failed“ make the final. There was nothing more I could have done on the day, but still, I was fed-up. I was sick of failing.
Walking off the track that day, I decided that next year, as a senior, not only was I going to make the final in the 800m, but I was going to be a contender in multiple events and people would remember my name after hearing called over the loudspeaker all weekend.
In that moment, I made a commitment to do whatever it would take to achieve success.
Sum of my Failures
Instead of allowing the failure to drag me down, I used it as a launch pad to achieve my goals.
I became exceptionally disciplined in my training, following my coaches direction to a T. I kept training through the off-season for the first time in my life. I started to listen to my body, and back off when I felt an injury coming on.
1 year later, I advanced through to the final of the 400m, 800m, and 4x400m with ease. The very next day, I won bronze in the 400m, silver in the 800m, and anchored my 4x400m team to a silver medal and the 5th fastest time in Provincial High School Championships history. My future university coach was so impressed at my ability to run well in multiple races on the same day, that he offered me a scholarship.
3 weeks later, I won my first provincial title at the BC Junior Club Championships.
From there, my career in track ultimately lead to:
- Becoming a NAIA All-American
- Competing at 5 Canadian Senior National Championships, including the 2012 Olympic Trials
- Competing all across North America and overseas in Spain and Japan;
- Making and visiting friends in every corner of the world from Hong Kong, to New Zealand, to Sweden;
- Cheering on dozens of former teammates and competitors at the London and Rio Olympic Games; and
- Developing the skills I needed to start and succeed in my career.
At the time, each of those three failures could have been interpreted as being unfair.
Unfair is a dead end and a waste of your time. It deflects all sense of control and responsibility, and therefore all opportunity as well.
But remember, unfair is a recent syndrome, and the cure is quick and simple:
Choose, in the moment or even months later, to view the event as a momentary hurdle to jump over on the way to your destination. The event then becomes an opportunity to achieve things that weren’t previously possible.
Failing to make the soccer team led me to focusing on track.
Failing to stay healthy and train properly led me to competing in a shorter race that allowed me to run more events.
Failing to advance to the 800m final led me to setting, working towards, and achieving ambitious goals.
The things that we think are going to be difficult and hard, teach us about ourselves and about the world. They force us to do something we would not have otherwise done. I am grateful for each of those failures, and I look forward to more, because I now realize that simply put, I am the sum of my failures.
When stacked on top of each other, the individual hurdles you have to overcome, become a ladder that enable you to reach heights that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
The higher you want to go in sports, school, your career, and in your personal life, the more ladder rungs you will to have climb. You’ll have to take risks, fail, choose to interpret them as merely hurdles, and then capitalize on the opportunities that they present.