What giving up my Olympic hopes taught me about failure.
At 13 years of age, an exciting sporting future lay ahead of me. I was in the school rounders, hockey and netball teams and was the elusive fourth leg on the county relay team. All because of one reason; I could run fast, really fast. At primary school I competed against the boys and in secondary school I had an unbeaten record of 13.4 seconds for the 100 metres.
My future was clear and the 1988 Olympics beckoned, until Lucy arrived at the school. Like me, Lucy was fast. My coach was excited; he had someone to challenge me. I, on the other hand, was less impressed. Practice became a nightmare. Lucy and I continually pitched against each other. Sometimes I won; sometimes she did.
There was a buzz of excitement in the air as sports day arrived and Lucy and I were to battle it out for the coveted 100 metre crown. The whole school gathered to see who would win. Lucy tore away and try as I might, I couldn’t catch her. She crossed the line first and I crossed the line fifth. Fifth! Coach assumed that it was an off day, my friends and family thought I must be ill, but I knew the reality was that I had failed!
That day was the last day I ever ran in a 100 metre race, the last day I ever took part in any type of competitive sports and the last day I ever entered any competition. Failure had stopped me in my tracks, my desire to always win and be perfect was shattered and like many girls and women I gave up because I assumed I just wasn’t good enough and lacked any real talent.
On quitting, my fastest time was clocked at 12.9 seconds. The fastest UK women’s 100 metre time in the 1988 Olympics was 11.39 seconds. It is easy to believe that, had I continued, I could have easily knocked over a second off my time. But I thought I wasn’t good enough and quit.
I was brought up hearing comments about how pretty I was, how gifted I was, what a natural runner I was and how I was so lucky to be so talented. This all resulted in me believing that when I failed it was because I didn’t have the talent, not because I needed to try harder. I had grown up with a limiting fixed mindset, a mindset that meant I feared failure so much that rather than experiencing it again, I took the easy option and gave up. It manifested in small ways throughout the rest of my life; not going for a promotion because I might get turned down, not asking for a pay rise because I might not be good enough and apologising when I was truthful and honest because I might upset someone.
I am sure that these are situations which many women can relate to. As women, to be successful we have to overcome the need to be perfect and deal more effectively with failure. We have to challenge years of conditioning that has us believe we must to be flawless and make no mistakes.
If someone had told me in 1983 that ability was not innate but down to hard work, that learning, not success was the end goal and beating Lucy was more about my mindset than talent, maybe I would have continued. Perhaps I would have taken loosing as a sign to try harder and not give up, but at the time my sense of self was so tied up with winning that not winning meant I was useless, not good enough and a failure, and that is something no one wants to feel.
So, let’s support our female colleagues, let’s challenge them to reach for more, let’s encourage them to get up and keep trying when they fail and let’s see them as allies to learn from, not competition.