Why failing can be more important than success

I am a failed Ironman. Twice in fact. One of the dreaded DNF’s (Did Not Finish). On both occasions I completed the swim but didn’t make it round the bike section. I don’t think I have ever felt so dejected after a sporting event. Indeed, I can’t remember feeling quite so down after anything I have ever done. Feelings of not only massive disappointment but also mixed with humiliation and embarrassment. At the time I felt as if it would almost have been better if people had openly laughed at me. Why hadn’t I trained more – or more intelligently? Why at my height/weight/age did I ever think I was going to make it? How could I be beaten by Fred or Frank or Francis (names changed to protect the guilty) all of whom were surely less athletic than me? Why did I tell so many people that I was taking part, all of whom I’m going to have to tell that I didn’t make it to the end?

I failed. I am a failure.

With the benefit of several years of hindsight, I can see how ridiculously out of proportion my reaction was. Yet I still can’t shake those thoughts off completely.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Right now we’re probably smack in the middle of the period where folks are taking on their own personal endurance challenges, probably involving icy waters or towering mountains. Or both. Targets are being set and met, medals are being awarded, grinning selfies are being taken. Stand at any finish line and you will see a range of emotions from quiet satisfaction to extreme pain and relief. But every single person who crosses has the satisfaction of knowing that they are in some way a winner. A finisher.

But there will also be a small number of participants, who, like me at the Ironman, are recorded in the results as DNF. They are the ones being tended by medical staff, ruefully inspecting broken equipment or nursing sprains and pulls who slink quietly off to the car park with no fanfare or fuss. A consoling arm across the shoulders and an encouraging comment will be of little help Perhaps it’s best just leave them to their own quiet moment of reflection and recovery. Regardless, their feelings will be the same. No amount of comfort will assuage the disappointment completely.

Yet, some things can, and should be, salvaged. For a start, a DNF should be viewed as a fantastic learning opportunity. What went wrong and why? More importantly, what changes need to be made before the next attempt in order to rectify the situation? Every detail should be analysed, not just the performance on the day. This includes the training schedule, the type of training done, the nutrition plan, the mental preparation, even the choice and date of the event. For the day itself, a review should be made of the tactics, the conditions and the physical and emotional state of the athlete at the start line. A brutal and honest evaluation will undoubtedly reveal areas that can be tweaked, adjusted or which require a radical overhaul before the next time.  Endurance events, whether on land, in the water or in the air are all about pushing the limits of what we think is possible, testing ourselves and finding out where those boundaries are.  It is inevitable that sometimes, on some days, we find ourselves not quite up to the task.

Photo by Massimo Sartirana on Unsplash

There will always be DNF’s for any significant endurance event and we should remember that they represent an extremely important group for everyone taking part. This is because they remind us that the event is a challenge to the athlete and for any challenge there has to be a risk of failure. If not, the event simply becomes “something we do to pass the time”. I can ride a bike; most people can. I can cycle into town, I can even cycle round the local hills. However, as I proved on my Ironman attempts, I couldn’t ride one over the mountains of Majorca because that’s a fairly significant challenge. Therefore, for those who could, and did, they know that they achieved something, overcame something, finished something and therefore their success means something.

So, tough as it may be to swallow, those of us who end up in the DNF category are vital to the overall significance of any endurance event. We provide context and proof that this was something that not everyone can do, even those of us who are relatively fit and prepared. Thus for those who do finish, they can take pride in knowing that their achievement has some sort of significance. And if it doesn’t feel like that, if they felt it was all too easy, then maybe it’s time to step up to the next level where failure once again becomes a threat and a credible outcome for the day.

For the DNF gang, we need to go away, lick our wounds, review and learn and come back even stronger either to take the same challenge on again or maybe set a different target, a different challenge – one that can be achieved. But still one with the danger that it might not. Otherwise, what’s the point in doing it at all?

An extraordinary relationship with your swim coach

Carl Rogers, a preeminent American psychologist of the second half of the 20th century, stated, “If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur” (Rogers, 1961, p.33).

He was making a bold assertion about the power of extraordinary helping relationships in general, (not just therapists) to do more than teach but to facilitate transformation from those seeking healing from illness and distress to those seeking enhancement of their normal human capabilities for work, sport or living well. He was promoting the view that when a person (you) are immersed in this kind of extraordinary helping relationship you are much more likely to experience a natural urge to seek, to try new things, to learn, to grow, and develop in positive ways, much more energetically than you would without this kind of attention.

It doesn’t take much experience with coaching adults in swimming to notice that most of our clients regard their swimming practice as much more than an exercise or sport but as a vital part of their physical and mental vitality. This makes the coach more than an instructor in how to move and train, but also in how to focus on what matters and how to respond to ups and downs of life that are represented in the athletic experience. This places the coach in a position to accompany and support a student as they go through a sometimes difficult and unsettling experience of physical and mental change and growth.

Rogers (1957; 2007) points to three features in helping professionals that enable them to create this extraordinary kind of helping relationship which can be readily seen in an extraordinary coaching relationship: empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard.

Empathy is the coach’s ability to sense some important parts of what you (the student) are experiencing and their ability to communicate this understanding to you in a way that makes you feel understood.

Congruence is the coach’s ability to be secure enough to show you on the outside what he/she is thinking and feeling on the inside regarding your person and progress as a student. They can be genuine and transparent in a tactful way that is helpful to your learning process.

Unconditional positive regard is the coach’s genuine open, accepting, warm, caring and non-judgmental attitude toward you that doesn’t require hiding or faking anything. You can feel safe to be vulnerable in your learning process with this professional.

When the skills you need to acquire and the conditions you need to prepare for are fairly easy for you, then you may not need something exceptional from the professionals who are trying to help you with that. But when you are facing greater internal or external challenges on the path to your goal, when improvement in performance may require changes in your inner being that provoke a sense of vulnerability, the quality and depth of relationship with a skilled coach can make a tremendous difference in helping you make those changes more easily. A coach who embodies these features noted above would be one who is more suited to accompany and support you on that journey.


Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2), 95–103.

Rogers, C. R. (2007). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 44(3), 240–248.


A little knowledge is a dangerous thing


True story. In 1995 a man called McArthur Wheeler, robbed two banks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.. He wore no sort of discernible disguise and happily smiled at the security cameras on the way out. The police viewed the CCTV, identified him and quickly arrested him. He was astonished. He couldn’t work out how he had been caught. He assumed he had stumbled on a failsafe method of disguising himself because he had smeared his face with lemon juice.

Huh ?

Well, because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink he had assumed that it would do the same trick for him and render him invisible as well !

It’s easy to dismiss this story as the act of an idiot. However, it piqued the interest of two phycologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger who decided to investigate further. Their findings, published in 1999  (https://www.avaresearch.com/files/UnskilledAndUnawareOfIt.pdf)  gave birth to what is known as the Dunning Kruger effect. You see, their conclusions were that the man wasn’t a fool at all. Just extremely misguided and misinformed, leading him to have a massive overconfidence in his own ability to succeed.

Further studies on people rating their own levels of competence have backed up their conclusions. For example, in a group of US software developers 42% ranked themselves in the top 5% of performers.  Another study showed 88% of US drivers rated themselves as “above average” in their skills.

Interestingly, the lack of self-awareness about one’s true level of competence in whatever area was being studied was not limited to those with little knowledge of the subject. People with a genuinely higher level of expertise tended to make incorrect evaluations regarding their own ability in the other direction. i.e. they tended to rate their performance lower than was actually the case.

Their perception of their performance only began to improve once a pretty high level of competence was achieved. The explanation for this apparent dichotomy was that this group simply assumed that everyone possessed their own level of expertise and knowledge and thus they set a higher bar for their perception of average performance.

The Dunning Kruger effect on people’s self-assessment of their own ability can be plotted a chart like this:.

Initially, while competence is barely started, there is a huge spike in confidence. But as knowledge increases and the true difficulty of the skill set becomes apparent, confidence plummets for a while before recovering again once as skills are mastered.

That initial exaggerated level of competence could, I guess, be extended back to the period before someone even attempts a particular task. How often have you ever looked at something without ever appreciating the level of skill involved? Just because a person is making it look easy doesn’t mean that it is. The “how hard can that be?” mindset can be applied to almost every walk of life be it writing a book, cooking a meal, servicing a car or decorating a room… or learning to swim.

Swim coaches often encounter clients who do not have an accurate self-assessment of their own ability. Most have met clients who believe that they can pick up the skills required to make them into an excellent swimmer within a few lessons just by making a few tweaks here and there.

Photo by King Lip on Unsplash

Sadly, in reality it often quickly becomes apparent that their confidence is somewhat misplaced and in fact their technique is in need of a complete overhaul and that many bad habits need to be unlearned and re-constructed. 

But in order to do that the swimmer needs to be aware of how far along the path of competence they currently are and how much they still have to learn. The coach needs a certain degree of tact and sensitivity. It is important not to crush the spark of motivation completely or to present the path to competence as being immeasurably long and unachievable. Goals must be carefully set which are both attainable and measurable. The downward slope from that initial spike of overconfidence needs to be carefully managed to ensure the swimmer does not lose their confidence even while their competence increases steadily.  Equally, swimmers need to approach the process with a mind open to new ways of thinking and moving, perhaps discarding old inferior practices which have become ingrained and second nature when in the water. It is important to view the body as one integrated system with every body part linked to and responding to previous actions.  Thus the key to resolving a problem in one area of the stroke may lie in correcting the actions of a completely different part of the body.

Following the curve of the Dunning-Kruger effect we see that a mismatch between confidence and skill may apply not only to inexperienced swimmers but to experienced ones as well. Equally challenging for the coach are the swimmers who are further along the path of competence but whose level of self-confidence might be less than those who are further back. In these cases, the job of the coach is not only to build on the current ability but also to boost their sense of self-efficacy, or the ‘I can do this!’ attitude and enthusiasm. The acquisition of new skills is recognised as being as much in the mind as it is in the body. But it is perhaps less obvious that a significant part of this is simply to recognise one’s own level of competence.  Sometimes swimmers simply need to be kinder to themselves and have faith in their own ability

Confidence is a major factor in providing a foundation for understanding and mastering new skills. Whilst some may need to be gently shown that they have some way still to go, others may need to be built up to understand that they are very close to perfecting a particular area already. 

The challenge for the coach is to recognise which type of swimmer is before them as the Dunning-Kruger effect may well mean that some swimmers will have difficulty in evaluating this for themselves.

Getting into cold water swimming. And getting out again.

Covid 19 has severely limited the options for many wishing to be active as gyms and pools remain closed and look to stay that way for some time to come.  So for many the Great Outdoors has beckoned !  Let’s assume you’ve decided to join them (maintaining a respectful social-distance at all times of course) and that cold water swimming is for you. Great!  

Be safe !

We’ll assume that you have found a safe location and that you have supportive, experienced albeit socially distanced friends to accompany you. It is absolutely essential that you minimise the risks as far as possible (you’ll never eliminate them entirely), especially as medical services have more than enough to do at the moment without rescuing the likes of those mucking about unprepared in freezing rivers and lakes. At SwimMastery we like to encourage people to enjoy open water swimming and build skills for safely handling the wild natural conditions. 

Getting In

Still determined to go in ? OK, well it’s important to know how your body is going to react to the dramatic decrease in temperature. We could go into all sorts of medical jargon here but essentially it boils down to this. Your brain will divide up your body into two categories; first, those providing vital functions to keep you alive and second, everything else. The vital parts are things like the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and the brain itself. Your brain will instruct the body to do all it can to protect these areas by circulating warm blood around them. Although you might be quite attached to the other bits (arms, legs, hands and feet etc) these are unfortunately regarded as expendable when the brain perceives the threat to life posed by the water. Thus blood circulation to these limbs is either reduced or stops altogether.

When you get in, your body will require a few moments to adjust to the temperature. If you stand on the shore, dipping in one toe at a time you’ll probably never pluck up the courage to get in. However, to take the “Geronimo” approach and leap with gay abandon from the jetty is equally ill-advised. The shock to the system could bring about all sorts of unpleasant consequences. A confident, determined yet slow approach is the only way to do it.

Photo by Tsunami Green on Unsplash

Whether you’re striding out into the lake or gingerly descending a ladder one of the first things you are likely to do is gasp at the cold and take a huge intake or air. (This is one of the reasons you shouldn’t be underwater at the time having jumped directly in). The next step is blindingly obvious but often more difficult to remember when you are actually in the water. Breathe out ! And in again. Get the breathing cycle under control as far as you are able. The reasons are obvious. The practice of doing so is sometimes more difficult if you aren’t used to it.

If you are standing waist deep in water, you might like to try splashing a little water on your face before you begin swimming. Again, this is to get the body used to what is to come. Normally it’s nice to swim with as few accoutrements as possible but some basic equipment is advisable. An inflatable tow float has multiple uses. In an emergency you could hold on to it for buoyancy, the highly visible material from which they are made can help you be easily located by others and finally the waterproof pocket can be used to hold valuables such as phones and car keys which you may want to keep with you, and other useful equipment such as a personal locator beacon. On windy days or in strong currents the float may begin to get ahead of you and interfere with your stroke. Nevertheless serious consideration should be given before discarding one.

Moving Around

Entering the water requires not only a degree of fortitude and courage but also common sense and preparation. Once you have managed it, however, you need to remain vigilant. Try to calm your stroke as much as possible. The temptation will be to swim rapidly to maintain what warmth you can. However, this can easily lead to hyper-ventilation and loss of buoyancy leading to panic and possible disaster. Try to remain calm and swim at your normal tempo. It may not be as easy as it sounds. If you normally swim freestyle you will no doubt return to this as a default. However, for the novice this may not be the best idea. Heads up breaststroke will not only keep the head above the water but will also remove many of the problems which may arise with breathing technique. Until you are used to the shock of the cold it’s always best to be as kind to yourself as possible.

Deciding how long to swim will depend on the individual and on the conditions. Some prefer to stay in for a set amount of time, others will come out once they feel they have had enough. Whilst the latter approach might seem to be the more sensible one, bear in mind that in such an alien environment, you may not be able to accurately judge exactly how you are feeling. You cannot base it merely on how long you stayed in last time because even slight decreases in water and air temperature can greatly change your body’s tolerance level. You might be feeling really exhilarated whilst in reality your core temperature is plummeting to dangerously low levels. It is likely to take several swims before you know the boundaries of your tolerances. it’s best to come out before you think you are ready rather than risk getting into trouble. As a general rule of thumb, you should exit the water before you lose feeling and control in your fingers and toes. 

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Getting Out

Whilst it may appear that getting into cold water is the most difficult bit, it should be remembered that getting out also needs to be carefully managed. A little preparation for this can make all the difference. The process of re-warming the body needs to start as quickly as possible. Towels need to be accessible immediately. Investment in a dry-robe is worth the money as these not only retain body warmth but also provide useful modesty cover whilst wet garments are disposed of. It is important to remember that your core temperature will continue to fall for up to twenty minutes after exiting the water – a process known as Afterdrop. A warm bath or shower might be tempting but in reality may not be advisable as this will stimulate the circulation too rapidly. Cold blood from the extremities will be pumped around the body into the heart causing a drop in blood pressure and possible dizziness or fainting. The continued cooling of the body may well result in slight cognitive and muscle impairment. Beware of driving home too soon after a swim.

The best method is to get as many layers on as possible and warm up slowly. Minimise evaporation from the skin. Don’t worry if you are shivering excessively. This is perfectly normal and will pass. Lay out your clothes in the order in which you will be putting them on and, if possible leave them so they can be slipped on with the minimum of fuss. A useful tip you could try is to take a hot water bottle inside a supermarket freezer bag. Wrap your base layers around the bottle before you go for your swim and they should be nice and toasty for when you return. Make sure you leave the freezer bag open though, you don’t want to be struggling to open it with freezing hands later. However, if you do need to warm your hands quickly, try placing them on the back of your neck. You have two large arteries there full of warm blood which you can use to your advantage.  

Think about where you will be getting changed too. You may not have the luxury of a changing room. As a substitute many people use a large plastic laundry bucket. Not only can you stand in this to keep off the muddy ground but it is also a useful way in which to carry home your wet stuff. Take a little gentle exercise to get your system functioning normally again but don’t over-do it. If you have a car by all means sit in it with the heater going. But don’t be tempted to drive straight away.

And the best bit about finishing a cold water swim is that you are well advised to have something to eat and drink. A completely guilt-free hot chocolate and slice of cake ! What could be better ?! In fact, in reality, a hot drink is unlikely to warm your body a great deal (think about the volume of liquid in a cup compared with the amount in your body !). You’d probably be better off simply holding it rather than drinking it. But where’s the fun in that ? Besides, now’s the time to maximise on that natural high that you will be feeling hopefully with friends who are in the same zone.

Those who partake in cold water swimming on a regular basis will tell you that it has enormous benefits for your health and general well-being and next time out we’ll delve just a little into some of the science which backs up these claims.  However, it must be approached carefully with good planning. Know your limits and push boundaries extremely cautiously and over a period of time. However, for those who are hardy enough to partake it’s an excellent way to extend the pleasures of swimming all year round.

Positive Emotions Matter When Learning

Positive Emotions Matter When Learning

Barbara Fredrickson has been one of the leading researchers on the power of positive emotions, and its impact on behavior, particularly on social and cognitive function. Building on the work of researchers before her, she developed a theory called Broaden And Build model of Positive Emotions which is described in her book Positivity.

Photo by Haley Phelps on Unsplash


When someone feels negative emotions like fear and anger, these have an affect on the brain which narrows down what the conscious mind focuses upon and limit the range of options for action this person is able to see. When someone feels positive emotions this opens up attention and broadens the range of options for action this person is able to see. In a nutshell, regarding the broaden part of the theory,”joy appears to open us up to many new thoughts and behaviors, whereas negative emotions dampen our ideas and actions.” (Lopez et al. (2019), p. 141)

Regarding the building part of the theory, the behaviors then urged by a person’s positive emotions have a tendency to increase positive social connection to other people, to promote quicker problem-solving and creativity, ease the process of making changes, and bounce back from stressful experiences. If acted upon, these behaviors build up the person’s strength for connecting, for problem solving, for changing, for recovering after difficult moments.

In the context of teaching someone to swim for the first time, or before that, to simply help someone become at ease submerged in water, a coach can greatly improve the learning-efficiency of her services by cultivating an environment of safety, connection, and positive emotion. This not only makes the swimmer feel good, it actually increases the resources her brain and body have available for breaking out and learning more.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2009) Positivity: Groundbreaking Research To Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive. New York: Crown

Lopez S.J. , Pedrotti J.T., Snyder C.R. (2019) Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practice Explorations of Human Strengths. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.


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