The Hardest Part Is The Failure

Failing sucks, but it’s better than the alternative, which is not trying.

Sarah Dessen, Author

This time of the year, the Books household is consumed with all things wrestling. From early November to about mid-March, Saturdays are spent at day-long high school tournaments watching our son go up against other grapplers looking to quench the thirst for independent victory and to celebrate the joy of team glory.

About 6 years ago, my son, Brandon, surprised us by coming home from school and announcing that he wanted to join his junior high school wrestling team. My wife and I were understandably concerned at the time about this revelation (learn more about that story here), but we supported his decision and are happy with the direction his journey has taken to date. It’s been a positive step towards his development onto whatever path he decides to travel once he clears high school.

Five years have passed so far with one year to go. We’ve found the sport to be exciting and invigorating as well as sometimes nerve-wracking. We’re active supporters of his school wrestling program as well as the coaches that develop the players. We’ve met many great people and made new friendships with other wrestling parents who share the same enthusiasm we do about all our children’s successes. Conversely, we commiserate with each other when there are shortcomings. Expectations are high in this sport, most often self-imposed by the mat-men themselves. That’s where it gets tricky.

As a parent, there is no greater pain felt than the one inflicted on your child, physical or mental. Any loving father or mother would gladly trade places or willingly sacrifice an appendage just to ease the agony felt by their son or daughter in just about any situation. It is indeed all part of the maturing process to accept our failures and challenges in life, but it sure as hell doesn’t make it any easier to take when you’re watching it all go down from the sidelines of your child’s life.

Last week, I was at one of several sectional tournaments being held in our area. Each weight class sends the top 2 wrestlers to the next level of competition. That’s the culmination and holy grail of high school wrestling – the state tournament. Wrestlers fight tooth and nail to get to this point in what is the completion of a long, tough season. Brandon was not competing (next year, buddy!), but 6 of his teammates were all fighting for a chance to advance. They’re not the only ones, of course. 8 schools are in the middle of the scrum all trying to get to the same place, where only the top 25% can go to face off against winners from other schools. Doing the math, that means for each person who goes, three don’t make it. Their road ends just short of the goal.

Where there is outright jubilation in the victory of advancement, there is also incredible sadness in season-ending defeat. Sometimes, all the preparation in the world can’t get you into the winner’s bracket. That’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone on either end of the age spectrum. Sometimes the frustration gets the best of you, and emotions spill over like a bucket overflowing with water.

As the tournament was coming to an end, I elected to stretch my legs in attempt to stave off an impending attack of high school bleacher-butt. As I passed through the lobby of the gymnasium, I couldn’t help but notice a wrestler who had obviously just suffered a crushing defeat and was now at the end of his wrestling journey for the year…quite possibly his high school career. Inconsolable and in the arms of his coach, he was sobbing. Searching for reasons and out of breath from crying, all he could say in between gasps for air was “Why coach? Why?”  The coach, on any other day an imposing hulk of a man whom I would steer clear of in a dark alley, was also fighting back tears.  All he could do was softly acknowledge his student’s grief while holding him in a supportive embrace. I would have bet all the money in my pockets right then and there he didn’t know what else to say.

You did all you could do. You gave it your best. That’s all anyone can ask for.

That was a tough moment to witness. It wasn’t even my child, but my heart went out to both of them because I’ve been there.

Conventional wisdom says there are two things in life that are certain – death and taxes. I’ll add a third: failure will happen in your lifetime and occur more than once. What’s important is how you use that experience to make your self better the next time around. That ‘s a message likely lost on people who are most interested in blaming circumstance versus overcoming adversity.

Quite frankly, it’s not an easy lesson to learn for a teen-aged boy, especially on the mat, in the middle of the gymnasium, in front of hundreds of spectators who are cheering you on to victory. However, part of the beauty of wrestling…and in just about any team sport….is learning how to deal with the highs and lows of life.

Sometimes you’re the windshield. Sometimes, you’re the bug.


Andy Books
Andy Books
I have spent most of my life in a leadership capacity. That all began right from the time I was the lead in my elementary school play to my current position as a Sales Manager. My truest love and best work comes from teaching and training aspiring leaders how to be skilled and effective leaders, which is a large part of my current occupation. Thirty-five years of collective experience as a Corporate Trainer, College Instructor, Operations Manager, Classroom Facilitator, and Foodservice Manager have played major parts in forming my philosophies that surround company success through employee engagement. Teaching someone to effectively lead gives me the greatest joy, and I write a lot about it. My most important titles though? Father. Dad. Husband. They give me the best material to write and blog about, and you can find them on Linkedin and The Goodmen Project.

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  1. Great article! Thanks. Life will continue to deliver failures as long as you’re not willing to quit. Failure is simply part and parcel of the journey. Those who never fail? It’s likely their first failures will hurt more. Because learning to stand up after failure matters. Learning to take another risk is critical. Finding out that tomorrow the sun will rise again and that you can try something else helps. Sometimes you’ve got to get up and evaluate. Other times you’ve got to run as best as you can to somewhere else so that you can heal and begin again. Life is hard. Life is also beautiful. blessings, Cynthia

  2. Andy, the desire, the passion, the perseverance can be ingredients, but being there at the end of the season says another thing – regardless of whether there was success or failure, you continued to show up. Show up for practice, show up for workouts, show up at the meets. When we look through all the obstacles and difficulties and challenges of competing at this or any level, you don’t make it to this point in the season without showing up, consistently, with an eagerness to learn and do whatever it takes to rock it to the next level. Talent, tools, coaching, drive all are great things to have, but if the kid doesn’t show up, there isn’t too much anyone can do to make him or her successful. Long after the trophies, the championships, or the glory have faded, that person will have learned how to dig down and do whatever needs to be done. Winning might be nice, putting yourself out there is real key. Great stuff, once again, and thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Tom. This story is further augmented by the fact that he broke his leg the last summer before his Sr season….and started and finished the season. That’s a bigger accomplishment. Thanks!

  3. Andy, your wonderfully crafted story has a powerful and timeless message: “how you use that experience to make your self better the next time around.” It wasn’t necessarily my experience wrestling that “made me better,” it was something at the end of the season that did.

    I was slotted into the 180 lb class even though I weighed only a bit over 150 at the time. (Oy, have things changed.) We had a top guy at 150, and no one at 180, so I was platooned. For most of the season, my back got to know the mat very well. It’s tough when you’re about 30 lbs down to the guy across from you – or on top of you. But in the last match of the season, I finally wrestled a guy who was in the same situation as I was. And I prevailed. Returning to the bench, I was mobbed by my teammates, which was great, but the real lesson in life came later.

    On the evening of the awards banquet, a rainy, windy spring night, I was sick in bed with the flu. But I remember the doorbell ringing and one of my parents entreating me to come down stairs. There, in the foyer, stood my coach, Mr. Walters, dripping wet from the rain – holding a trophy. It wasn’t one of those “you participated” trophies. It was a trophy that specifically acknowledged me for wrestling one class above my weight for the whole season.

    “You did all you could do. You gave it your best. That’s all anyone can ask for.”

    That trophy is long gone – a painful story – but Mr. Walters action of personally delivering it has remained with me all these years. I remember the names of maybe three teachers from high school, and Mr. Walters’ name is one of them. No need to guess why.

    Thanks for this reminder, Andy.

    • Your personal anecdote goes far beyond the original lesson, Jeff…and I’m grateful for it. Not only have you demonstrated the value of the sport (and all sports, really), but tied it into remembering and honoring those who made the difference in our lives. Nicely done, my friend. Always good to hear from you, Jeff!

    • Mine told me to be quit whining and take out the garbage. 😉 Seriously, that was great advice, Larry. You mean our elders knew some things and had great advice??? Thanks for the comment!

  4. Love the post. I am a proponent of failure if we learn from it. Nothing in life is 100% (except I do 100% of what the voices in my wife’s head tell her to tell me to do)….AS a participant in sports in high school and college at a varsity level I won and I lost but I learned from my losses. In business I have won and lost a few but when I lost I always asked the client/customer WHY.. I told them to be brutally honest and when they were I learned. That is to me what life is about constant learning.

    • Agreed, Norman. The examples are all around us, and I tend to feel that we sometimes cover up the failure for those we love in an attempt to keep them from hurt and harm. A noble thought. but counter productive in the grand scheme of things. There are lessons, great and small. Learning how to deal with the smallest and greatest of challenges builds character. Thanks for the comment!

  5. There are many aphorisms on the importance of failing to learn and grow. What I prefer is the following:
    Everything that others can do, why with patience you cannot do it too?
    Only keep well in sight this rule: try again.

    • A good rule I can use while doing home improvement, Aldo. Requires great patience. 😉 Thanks for reading, and for the comment!

  6. Thankfully most of our failures come without death! The bug on the windshield didn’t get a chance to learn any powerful lessons. We do. Learning how to fail is something that defines our life’s journey. And being exposed to the lessons early on will only strengthen their character. I’m also glad his coach allowed the boy to be vulnerable. And met his vulnerability with his own vulnerability. It teaches our youth that it’s okay to have feelings and to express them!

    Bravo all around.

  7. Thank you so much for this essay about the agony of defeat, Andy. After swimming for years on a losing swim team(for years we lost every single dual meet with another swim team), many of us learned to reframe, to focus on improvement and the importance of team. We cheered loudly for those teammates who won an individual race. We cheered loudly for the swimmer who finished the race for the very first time (the inexperienced, passionate to learn, struggling to move their arms through the water swimmers). Many of us learned good sportsmanship and always shook the hands of the winners. The inner qualities-the strength of our characters-our insides grew immensely as we bonded in the enduring agony of defeat, but we never saw ourselves as “failures.” because we LOVED to swim, to be part of a team of people who were learning great lessons about life, relationships-that there’s something deeper and more enduring than “winning.” There’s persistence, perseverance, a deep care for one another, improving one’s stroke, improving one’s time, and the sheer courage of getting in the water time after time knowing we’d lose and also knowing that some people refused to get in the water because their fear of humiliating defeat was greater than their joy of the experience of getting wet, of being brave.

    No one can take away the internal, enduring qualities of character that outer measures of “failing” can not ever touch.

    To quote Theodore Roosevelt:
    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    • True…maybe the word “fail ” is incorrect. More like the challenges, adversities, re-directions, etc. In any case, these are life lessons that stick with us and form our reactions and choices later in life. Thanks for the comment, Laura….always good to hear from you!

    • Beverly Sills! Have not heard that name in quite some time, Darlene! Yet another angle. Thanks for the comment!