Many years ago, a frustrated headmaster at Chaote Rosemary Hall, a Connecticut prep school, sat to write a report for a young student. The headmaster described how the young student was ‘casual and disorderly’, and how he “studies at the last minute, keeps appointments late has little sense of material values, and can seldom locate his positions”. Not surprisingly, the student graduated near bottom of his class. Despite this inauspicious beginning, that young man went on to become not just a war hero, but the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Everyone faces setbacks at some stage on the pathway to great success. Sometimes we forget this. A combination of hindsight and victory have a habit of often creating an illusion of constant success or perfection on a pathway to victory. Part of the problem with analysing success and failure is what is known as the phenomenon of ‘victor’s bias’. Often when looking at winners we don’t recognize the failures they’ve had before or how close they came to never winning.
Almost every great player I’ve had the pleasure to work with has confessed to me they were written off by someone, cut from a team or received a poor scouting report. I’ve heard many times, something to the effect of, “I wasn’t that good when I was younger,” or “My older brother/sister was actually way better than I was”. Success is rarely if ever pre-ordained and often missed early on.
People jump to conclusions based on the wrong information, often writing off future talents. One day as I was performing an ECG test on Martyn Williams a Welsh Rugby player, he said something that has stayed with me ever since. Martyn wasn’t the biggest or most physical rugby player Wales ever had, but he lived up to his nickname “Nugget.” He was gold, a world class number 7 who played for his country 100 times.
“If rugby teams were picked on fitness testing alone, Fergus, I’d never have played a game for my country,” Martyn understood that the main thing was playing the game, not posting the best fitness test numbers which he had often been judged on early in his career.
Sometimes, there’s benefit to early setbacks. It can be a teaching moment. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity team. Years later he reflected on it saying “It’s probably good that it happened. It made me know what disappointment felt like. And I knew that I didn’t want that feeling ever again.”
When we think of Michael Jordan we, decades later, still recall amazing highlights. But it’s often because of this we sometimes forget that being cut from his high school varsity team wasn’t his only setback.
In the 1998 Nike advert Jordan reminded everyone.
Occasionally life setbacks push you into a realm you’d never normally consider. A young Cassius Clay had his bike stolen so he turned to a boxing gym to learn how to prevent being pushed around. Not only did this begin a long journey for a young kid from Louisville, but it literally impacted millions of lives around the world.
Sometimes setbacks are simply a detour on a journey. One scout wrote about Wayne Gretzky “won’t survive the rough play” another deemed him “too small, too slow” for the NHL. Rejected by the NHL he signed to play for the World Hockey Association (WHA) for a year. The following season when the WHA and NHL combined, Gretzky started what would become a legendary NHL career. By the time he retired, Gretkzy held 61 NHL records, including 894 career goals, 1,963 career assists, 2,857 points and 50 hat-tricks.
Setbacks happen to teams and organizations, not just individuals, even the world dominating All Blacks. In preparation for the 2007 Rugby World Cup the All Blacks prepared their team with what became known as the ‘Reconditioning Block’. The Reconditioning Block was pioneering exercise, training an elite team in a very intense environment for an international competition unlike had ever been done before. However, for a number of reasons the All Blacks failed to win in 2007 and the Reconditioning Block was the lazy excuse used by some.
There was an obvious fallout when the team arrived back in New Zealand, a passionate rugby nation. But rather than overreact and change the whole coaching staff, which is what many organizations would do, the New Zealand Rugby Union took time to evaluate everything. The coaching staff accepted some mistakes had been made, vowed to learn from the lessons and explained how they were best positioned to adapt for the next World Cup. Rather than jettisoning the whole coaching staff the NZRU kept the same coaching staff in place. Following the 2007 setback, the All Blacks have won every World Cup since.
When you get setback or are criticized, remember it may be simply a misinformed commentary, a redirection or detour. The two most important lessons I’ve learned from elite sport is it will happen and never accept it as final.
After all, Sylvester Stallone was once voted by his high school classmates as ‘most likely to end up in the electric chair’.
This article was written by Dr. Fergus Connolly, one of the world’s foremost human performance thought leaders and influencers, and has applied performance science with leading sports, military, and business teams. He is the only coach to have full times roles in every major sport, including soccer (Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers), professional and college football (San Francisco 49s and University of Michigan) and rugby (Welsh national team). For more information on Dr Connolly here.
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