Failure & the art of self-reflection

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts

Winston Churchill

2 years ago this week I was part of team who tried to #RunThePeaks – a 450 mile non-stop relay between the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales. After 200 miles, just before ascending the second peak, Scafell Pike, we ended the challenge.

It was a challenge that brought me close to breaking point, to quitting it all.

The pain of failure

The hours of planning, the thousands of pounds of my own money I put in to it, the stress and agonising over a dream and a challenge I created. For it to collapse and not go how I had planned it crushed me and it left a deep scar – even looking back on it now it makes me want to cry. All of that for nothing.

It made me question everything, whether I was capable of being the endurance athlete I thought I was, whether my body could actually cope with the toll I was putting on it – my IBS flared up during the challenge to the point where I could barely run through the pain. But the most important question I was asking myself was whether mentally I could take any more of these defeats.

Rewind further to 2018, the 5 Cities Challenge – an ambitious bike packing adventure to cycle a 1,000mi loop around Europe in just 5 days. Much like that future challenge, it ended early in equally depressing fashion, as I vomited my way through dark Parisian back streets. 3 days and just 1250mi after setting off from London, I was finished – a mixture of exhaustion, a stomach bug and my IBS meant I was in no condition to continue.

The lesson

After 5 Cities I spoke to some coaches and in early 2019 Pav Bryan and we started working together as Coach and Client – I haven’t looked back since. I’m a stronger, more powerful and more mindful athlete for working with him and having his experience to help me.

After #RunThePeaks we worked together with a Nutritionist and we changed my diet. We got a grip of my IBS and began the process of giving my body the best possible chance of withstanding the pressures endurance sport will put on the muscles and stomach.

Scars run deep, but, with time they heal and make us stronger for the experience. But, this doesn’t happen by magic – learning requires the ability to reflect, learn and grow.

Self-Reflection

The point of this blog is to share the importance of self-reflection for athletes – it is one of the most important tools in an athletes toolbox to improving their performance.

That’s not to say it’s easy, it takes a strong character to take an honest, unbiased look back at what has gone before in order to inform what comes next. In simple terms this is being able to understand the reasons for any issue and instead of only asking why, the real question becomes how can the situation be corrected for future?

It’s common for us to focus and work hard on the things we are strong at. However, we aren’t all perfect, sadly, and as I said above focusing on our weaknesses isn’t all that easy or natural. So how do we do it? Here’s three things that have worked for me;

  • Write it down – This blog, the process of writing my thoughts down has become a great tool for self-reflection on both my personal and sporting life. The writing process for me is very therapeutic and reflective exercise because it forces me recollect my thoughts and feelings in a manner that is more logical. You don’t need a blog, you can use a note taking app on your phone, a voice note or a pen and paper – use whatever works for you.
  • Talk it out – Having a honest conversation with someone you trust, such as a coach or mentor, is a great way to pick someone’s brains or get feedback from someone who has been there before or felt the same. Having Pav there to tell me honestly what’s happened from a data perspective or to offer advise to help has been invaluable for me – sometimes he’s said things that’s been hard to hear in the moment and I’ve been close to telling him to F@*k off. But it has always been needed and actioned.
  • Wait – following on from that last point, for me the most effective self-reflection happens when the immediate high emotions have subsided and I can think more rationally.

In conclusion, even though it is an uncomfortable process, self reflection requires honesty, time, input from others and willingness to be uncomfortable in order to progress.

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