Sport, helplessness and learning to embrace failure

For a sport involving two bats and a tiny plastic ball, table tennis can be quite intense. Body language is far more telling in this game that it would be in many others. Outside of actual combat sports it's hard to think of a game which forces competitors into such close proximity.

Helplessness is learned behaviour. Failure can break you out of that habit.

These days, whenever I face a player who regularly beats me, I try to push negative thoughts to one side and concentrate on winning the game at hand. When, on the other hand, I play someone whom I regularly beat, sometimes they give me the impression of thinking, ‘here we go again’, resigned to the fact that they are not going to win. Naturally, this mentality virtually guarantees that they will lose.

Charisse Nixon is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Penn State University. She describes this state of mind as ‘learned helplessness’, a situation where an individual convinces themselves that they cannot change the outcome. She likes to take her students through an experiment to show how quickly this attitude can take hold.

Fake word problems

Two groups of students are given anagrams to unscramble, starting with simple ones and moving on to progressively harder ones. The groups are told they have all been given the same words. However, whereas half the students get the progressively harder words as promised, the other half get impossible words from the outset.

As the test progresses the students from the difficult half see the other students raise their hands each time they solve a puzzle. In the meantime they themselves cannot find the answers. Not knowing that the test is rigged they begin to assume that they are just no good at this type of problem solving.

During the final round all of the students are given the same word. What almost always happens is that the first group, who had to work with progressively harder words, succeed again. The second group, who were set up to fail from the beginning, fail again. This is despite the fact that the anagram is the same one for both groups.

One group has been taught that they can succeed. The second group have been misled into believing that they will fail and so they do. This is ‘learned helplessness’. Nixon explains how it can apply socially as well as academically. I think it also applies to sport. It’s something that sooner or later, every player will have to face.

A lesson from another sport

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

This quote from the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, is tattooed onto the forearm of the tennis player below, Stanislas Wawrinka.

Wawrinka is a Swiss professional, the winner of three grand slams.

So what can a tennis player teach us about rejecting helplessness through embracing failure? It is all to do with the quote. Wawrinka won all three of his major titles after the age of 29. That’s the age when, traditionally, even the best players start to decline. Many players such as Nastase, Borg, Sampras, McEnroe, and Lendl had finished winning titles by then. But Wawrinka was just getting started.

Given his huge talent, his entire career had been something of a failure up until that point, but no matter. He would try and fail, and the next time he would fail better. As long as he kept getting better each time, failure was not an issue. He kept picking himself up, practicing harder, improving his game, working all the time, and eventually failure turned into success.

The lesson is straightforward. Eliminate helplessness by embracing your failures. Learn what lessons you can from each failure and try again. It doesn’t matter what has gone before. It doesn’t matter how good or bad we are today. Tomorrow we can all try again and tomorrow we can all fail better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *