Learn From Success

‘Unexplained winning is a sin’

This is one of the quotes that most resonates with me. It’s also one of the quotes that has had the biggest influence on my coaching philosophy. We’re all brought up with idea that mistakes are inevitable, and rightly so. We make mistakes, we learn from them, we get better. Simple. But why is the focus always on failure?…

Learning from failure

It’s pretty easy to learn from failures. Why? Because you have a clear negative performance outcome. Let’s put it in training terms. If you fail a snatch then the bar ends up on the floor, a pretty clear negative outcome. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that something didn’t go to plan there. It could be technical, it could just be that the weight was too heavy, but either way, shit went bad. Work out what it was and then get round to fixing it.

Evolutionary laziness

Keeping with the above example, when was the last time you made a lift and thought, ‘wow, that felt great because of x, y or z’? Probably a while ago, right? I think that success breeds complacency to some level. From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re all pre-programmed as cognitive misers. The brain wants to the least it can to get by. Why would you want waste precious energy thinking about the things that were successful when you can focus it on the things that went badly and could potentially threaten your survival? After all, if it ain’t broke…

Learning from success

It’s not an automatic process to reflect on success, it takes conscious effort. If you want to learn from success you need take control of the process. I believe that the skill behind learning from success lies in the following:

  • Learn from the successes of others

In a good needs analysis you should be highlighting what the common characteristics of elite performers are. This should apply to whatever field you’re looking to excel in. What have the best got? What are they doing? If you keep seeing the same things popping up then it’s probably a good idea for you to follow suit.

  • Log what you do (and what happens next)

Keep information about what you do in as much detail as you can. Periodically come back to your loggings and look for trends. What are you doing when performance levels go up or go down? Do these same things happen time and time again? Do they happen in different people and different groups?

  • Keep to some ‘base principles’

In order to evolve and improve it’s inevitable that something needs to change. But if you change everything at once, then how will you know what changes initiated positive outcomes and what changes initiated negative outcomes? Regardless of the realm you’re seeking to improve in, keep to a set of base principles. Principles that are tried, trusted and stand the test of time. Then make subtle changes, one at a time, and see what happens. If the performance gets better or worse you’ll then know whether the change was for good or for bad.

Success? Or lack of failure?

All the above being said, how do you know if something you’re doing is successful or merely ‘not detrimental’? Is it that 5 x 5 routine on front squats that’s making your sprinters run faster? Or do the squats have no carryover to the track and it’s something completely removed that’s having the performance affect… See what I mean about learning from failure being pretty simple?! It’s much harder to spot the contributors to failure than it is to spot the contributors to success. After all, people tend to be doing more things right than they are wrong. The wrong ones tend to stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s not an easy task!

Learning from failure is easy, learning from success is not. For starters, to learn from success you must commit to the process and that takes a conscious effort that is somewhat unnatural. Second, success only leaves clues. Success does not leave definitive answers. Whilst we search for trends and relationships which may explain success, we need to bear in mind that correlation is not causation. The skill of the coach or athlete lies in the interpretation of such trends and discovering what works for them.


John Dewey once said “we do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience”. I’d like to add to that…

The good learn from their failures. The best learn from their successes too!

Coaching, Performance, Psychology, Science , , , , , , , ,

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