Success Through Failure

TI in Poland Heach Coach Pawel Lewicki and I just finished another successful Total Immersion Coach Certification Camp a couple days ago in Jarocin, Poland. This one was better than ever. We had great students (as usual) and added even better features to the training plan. We are pleased with the work our coach trainees accomplished and in the response from the swimmers.

We had 5 coach trainees and 5 swimmers, all with the right mindset for growing in skill- they were learners and willing to walk through failures, step by step, to reach success.

One thing that I am learning to look for, both in myself and the coaches and swimmers we work with is the Growth Mindset – see Carol Dweck or her book Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success. The growth mindset describes the attitude that is present in those who can handle failure well and successfully pursue change (improvement) in their lives.

More specifically, I look for evidence of the growth mindset in various ways- from what kind of comments people make about difficult tasks, from their body language, in how patient in listening and in working on a new skill, in how persistent they are in sticking at it, to where attention is being given, and how well they receive instruction even if it is something they think they already know how to do, for example.

Our training, both as TI swimmers and as TI Coaches intentionally takes us toward the borders of what we are comfortable with, what we have skills for. The Way of TI is along the Growth Mindset path. This way will test our skills and our attitudes- we will work on both. We go there because we want to grow. Coming near that border means we will start failing- we will discover where our familiar skills end and our learning needs to begin. But we don’t call it failure in TI, we call it an “improvement opportunity.” It may sound silly, but how we word things shapes our attitude about the subject.

Chip & Dan Heath have a great book called Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, with a section that describes this Growth Mindset, and specifically, it’s relationship with failure.

A few lines caught my attention and I want to share them with you:

“If failure is a necessary part of change, then the way people understand failure is critical.” (p. 168, paperback edition)

“That’s the paradox of the growth mindset. Although it seems to draw attention to failure, and in fact encourages us to seek out failure, it is unflaggingly optimistic. We will struggle, we will fail, we will be knocked down- but throughout, we’ll get better, and we’ll succeed in the end.” (p. 169)

In this next quote, the author is describing a situation where teams of doctors at various hospitals were attempting to adopt a complex new form of heart surgery (to reduce the trauma of open-heart surgery)- very serious skills for sure. Some teams practiced and successfully adopted the new technique, and some teams gave up and stayed with the more traumatic, old form of surgery.

“Across the hospitals she studied, Edmondson found that the teams who failed [to adopt the technique] made the mistake of trying to “get it right on the first try” and were motivated by the chance to “perform, to shine, or to execute perfectly.” But of course no one “shines” on the first few tries- this mindset set the teams up for failure. By contrast, the successful teams focused on learning. They didn’t assume that mastery would come quickly, and they anticipated that they’d face challenges. In the end, they were the ones who were more likely to get it right.” (p. 172)

Certainly, in our swim training we are practicing nothing as critical as life-and-death surgery, but we are practicing the same mindset as those successful surgical teams. We train our TI Coaches to practice this mindset and intentionally infuse this philosophy into our teaching with students.

Many swimmers practice (and practice, and practice) and successfully imprint the TI technique, and some swimmers give up and go back to their (more traumatic) old form of swimming. I wonder with these swimmers if it might not have something to do with their attitude about failure.

“Failing is often the best way to learn, and because of that, early failure is a kind of investment.” (p. 173)

With TI swimmers practice time is our investment time. We invest time and attention into building mental and neuro-muscular skills that become resilient in challenges conditions and through stressful events, and even through the aging process.

We love to practice because we realize what we are building in every focused stroke.

Part of this love of practice is an attitude about failure that is unique to mastery minded-people. Failure is a friend, not an enemy. We deliberately design practices to help us explore the edges of our skills and ability, and take smart paths beyond. We seek it out problems and failure because they provide critical information that prompts us to search further, to look deeper, to more finely tune in. Only by approaching these boundaries can we discover what is keeping us from where we want to be. In this discovery process we are rewarded by the pursuit of improvement itself.

In Poland last week our 5 coaches and our 5 swimmers went through the cycle: beginning with excited, hopeful smiles, then dipped into the pool, bumped into some obstacles they didn’t expect, perhaps a little confused by some of the new concepts, spent some time with deep contemplative brows as they worked through the increasing complexity of our coaching and swimming skill sequence. But then they ended with even bigger smiles and satisfaction from the accomplishments we realized.

Congratulations new TI Coaches! And we welcome our students to our international community of Growth-Mindset Swimmers!

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