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October 17, 2019

In Sights - Failure Is Not An Option, or Is It?

From USA Archery's High Performance Newsletter

By Guy Krueger, USA Archery Education and Training Manager

Briefing

This year we have continued to challenge traditional ideas on the topic of learning as we have talked about the learning process and risk taking. I recently had an amazing opportunity to go behind the scenes at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and get an in-depth look at the history of lessons learned from over 60 years in space exploration. It was awe-inspiring to glimpse the culture of an organization that has lead innovation, risk taking and accomplished some of humanity’s biggest endeavors. However, many of those accomplishments came at a great cost and with the whole world watching. Through it all, NASA has been incredibly effective at learning and innovating.

Through my behind the scenes tour, I was especially impressed with how NASA has learned from past failures and used these failures to fuel their successes. I think there is a lot we as archers, coaches and staff we can learn from how NASA has reacted to their failures, especially as the competitive season comes to an end and preparations begin for the indoor season and off season.

Good Can Come From Bad

Interestingly enough, I was shocked when I walked into meeting rooms in NASA and the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and saw the patches of NASA’s biggest failures displayed largely on the wall; the patches of the Apollo 1, Space Shuttle Challenger, and Space Shuttle Columbiawere prominently displayed. Meanwhile, the patches of their successful missions were posted on an opposite wall less than a quarter of the size of the failed missions. They make an intentional effort to remind themselves and the next generation of engineers of the complacency that caused their biggest failures, and that ultimately, vigilance has to happen in the office for their mission to be successful. If something unexpected happens on the day they have to perform, that vigilance will help them succeed.

Our culture and our ego tell us to avoid failures because failures are not acceptable. Admittedly, as a perfectionist in a sport where perfection is never attainable, I felt that failure and mistakes were not an option. As an archer and as a coach, I tried to forget my failures. I think a lot of coaches and athletes try to avoid talking about their failures because they think it will have a negative impact on their self-image. However, what I saw at the Johnson Space Center told me something different, that talking about the reason for your failures is different than talking about the result of your failures. NASA reminds themselves of the reason for their failures and ultimately builds on the lessons learned from those failures. They are not afraid to be honest with themselves and evaluate and analyze their performance based on truth and facts. Ultimately, they know good can come from bad.

Find the Causes, All of Them

I was impressed with learning the history of these failures and the causes. In every failure, NASA set out to determine everything that lead to an unsuccessful mission, not just one cause. For every failure, they set out to identify not only the specific parts that failed, but ALL the causes of the failure AND the systems in place that lead to those parts failing.

I think we are all guilty of trying to find one problem, one quick fix that would have prevented an unsuccessful performance. Often times, an unsuccessful performance is the result of the lack of preparations and faults in many areas, not just one. To do this, you have to take emotion out of the picture and evaluate your performance on what happened and why it happened.

For example, say you had a bad shot in the last end of a competition on the way to shoot a personal record. It’s not the low score you shot on that arrow that caused the failure. The failure was potentially caused by a combination of:

  • The flinch and loss of back tension on that shot
  • The mindset on that shot that shifted to the result of shooting a personal best
  • The lack of preparation in training in putting yourself in that pressure scenario
  • The lack of practice in training using a shot trainer to have more back tension
  • The lack of mental imagery of being in that pressure scenario
  • The lack of rehearsing positive affirmations that build the self-image to shoot the score

Closing

Our biggest lessons learned often come from our biggest failures. I like to think of these painful moments as growing pains. We all experience them at different levels of intensity, but there is always an opportunity for growth. Do not be afraid to dive into your failures (no matter how big or small), learn from them, identify all the reasons for an unsuccessful performance, and carry that learning with you. And finally, remember mistakes and failures are ok, they are a natural part of the learning process. No one ever learned to walk without falling and bruising their bottom or bonking their head.

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