Learning How To Fail
There will be a point in a girl’s training when something will go wrong. This isn’t unique to females, but it’s more significant to them when it happens. When a guy fails a weight or busts his ass squatting, he’s embarrassed and ashamed, but typically more pissed off. He’ll mutter, “God damn it,” scrape himself off the floor, re-rack the weight, and try it again. He’s pissed, yet has a hint of competitiveness. This could be from playing sports in high school or a heightened relative aggression due to an evolutionary development that results in at least ten times the amount of testosterone. Either way, when girls who are new to training fail, they can get upset and will even cry.
It doesn’t always have to occur after an embarrassing ass-busting that results in everyone in the gym staring. Instead, it can occur with experienced girls who miss a much desired PR. Sorry if you’re a tough-guy girl who feels the need to respond to every discrepancy that isn’t aimed at you, but most girls will cry at least once in the gym.
This can be awkward or difficult, because most guys won’t know what to do (and will often just want to go make a sandwich). Yet it’s relevant, because focusing on “today” is erroneous when training is actually a process. Anybody who broods excessively over a shitty workout just ends up being a pain in the ass. You’re allowed to brood if you bomb out at a meet, but not if you miss a rep off of your work set. Failing is supposed to be a part of training. It needs to happen. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t get any better.
When someone fails or messes up in lifting — but specifically talking about girls here — and they are visibly upset about it, the first thing I do is explain what went wrong, and what we have to do to fix it. Things are not hopeless in the gym. Mechanics are easy to observe and easy to fix; we aren’t dealing with unknowable factors like shifts in gravity or constantly mutating bodies. I will diagnose what caused the failure — whether it’s inadequate recovery (sleep/food/stress/etc.) or a technical error — and explain how we are going to improve that thing. If it’s technical and there are still more sets, then I whittle this down to an easy cue (usually reiterating something we’ve been focusing on). If it occurred on the last set, then I might have a repeat of fewer reps at the weight, back off the weight and practice the cue, or if the person is smoked move on and worry about it next workout (but make a note in the log).
The second thing I’ll stress is that this error, this failure, shouldn’t effect the rest of the workout or mindset in general. I’ll point out, “There isn’t anything we can do about it now, we know why it happened, and we know how to prevent it in the future.” If the lifter needs a few minutes to be pissy about it, I’ll give them that time, but then I’ll ask them forget about it. At nationals this year, Chris missed his third squat — something that I felt he really took pride in because of the progress he made on the lift in the last year (he has squatted 644 in competition). Chris really takes failures hard and was brooding, and this was the quote I used in the post recapping that meet:
“I know you’re pissed and upset about squat, but we still have the rest of the meet. It’s time to step up and be a competitor — we can worry about that shit later, but let’s put all our focus into getting good reps on the bench and deadlift. Go take a walk and let it go on the walk. When you come back, let’s fucking have fun and compete.”
Chris was pissed for a couple more minutes, took a short walk, came back focused, PR’d on bench, hit a really funny posing routine in the warm-up room, and then he summoned the demons for a PR deadlift of 666 pounds — the devil’s number — on his third attempt.
This may not be necessary in a training session, but if I need to, I’ll set a short-term parameter for the lifter to be pissed, and then we’ll wipe the slate clean and focus on what’s ahead instead of brooding on the past.
Lastly, I will put things in perspective. This is typically only needed with women because they have trouble with failure (they get really pissed and upset). I will show them the big picture and detail how far they have progressed. Women typically lift in the moment and are concerned with progress from their relative position and often ignore the fact that they are lifting twice as much weight (for reps) as they could when they started. This is usually combined with a “well done” speech and giving them a verbal pat-on-the-back for how far they’ve come. In all honesty, I think i’s impressive when a girl who couldn’t squat 90 pounds is now squatting 180 for reps. I think that’s really cool and something that 99% of women in the world are unable to do. I’ll usually point out that nobody in the building is capable of such a feat (typically true in a public fitness gym).
Failure is a regular part of lifting. It helps us learn how to improve physically, but it’s a marker of psychological success that can’t be emulated until it happens. It helps us diagnose the problem and fix it, but it helps us grow stronger mentally by not letting it get in the way of a training session, a meet, or progress. Failure also gives us a moment to sit on the mountain of success we’ve built, look down the trail we’ve traveled, and say, “Damn, I have come a long way.”