Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
The US Women’s National Team has dominated the last few World Cup competitions. That streak ended abruptly, however, when they recently fell to Sweden in extra-time penalty kicks. Megan Rapinoe, who missed an embarrassingly wide penalty kick in extra time, and Alex Morgan led the team but there were some new faces, as well, including Trinity Rodman and Naomi Girma—players who are poised to be the leaders of the next generation of great US soccer athletes.
The loss for these younger and newer players, however devastating it may feel right now, can be the failure they needed if the team looks to go on to another dominating run in the future. The success that comes fast and early can be a detriment for athletes with room to grow. In David Epstein’s book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, he pulls fascinating analysis and statistics that show failing early is often the key indicator for long-term or later success.
In one scenario, Epstein studied the assessment of economists who studied Air Force cadets taking Calculus classes. There was one group of “easier” Calculus I professors whose instruction most strongly boosted the cadet’s performance on the Calculus I exam. Subsequently, the cadets evaluated their professors with excellent ratings. Another group of “harder” professors taught cadets who performed lower on their exams. As you can imagine, those professors received lower evaluation scores.
Epstein writes, “But when the economists looked at another, longer-term measure of teacher value-added—how those students did on subsequent math and engineering courses that required Calculus I as a prerequisite—the results were stunning.” Students who had the “easier” professors performed worse in those classes with the Calculus I prerequisite than their peers who had the “harder” professors.
The “harder” professors sacrificed short-term success for longer-term mastery. The challenge created the resiliency necessary to work through complex problems in the future. The cadets with less rigorous classes received their reward earlier without the fortification tools necessary to work through later difficulties.
What looks like struggle and failure in the short term is often the struggle that fortifies our mind’s ability to learn and use that knowledge in the long run. Which means that for the USWNT, their loss to Sweden can be good news. Success was difficult to attain. Failure was an option. Now the younger soccer athletes on the team and those who will join in the future have the proper scaffolding on which to build their future success.
What’s good news in a loss for the USWNT is also good news for us. If you’re blundering opportunities, making mistakes, and apparently failing at life, look at it another way. Your losses are lessons. When we falter, we often ask ourselves the wrong questions. Instead of questioning who to blame or why we continue making mistakes, perhaps we can examine how the losses are helping us grow. Who are we becoming in failure?
And to take it a step further, we know someone whose whole life looked like a failure. Jesus was born to a teenage mom out of wedlock (Luke 1:26–38), was a a blue-collar worker (Matthew 13:55), never owned a home (Matthew 8:20), never married, and the only friends he had for about three years turned their backs on him in his most desperate time of need (Mark 14:50–51). He was murdered by age 33, and his ministry looked like a failure.
But his struggling life and death were the precipice upon which millions of people would later come to worship and dedicate their lives because he (seemingly) failed. For Jesus, failure (by societal standards) was the only option. Don’t let the temporary failure of today define the long-term achievement of your future—namely, eternity. There’s value in a loss, even if it’s not immediately apparent.