Using Failure as Motivation For Success

A black man with an athletic build staring intently with sweat on his face from working out

By Jeff Tomko

Nearly every success story in life — from athlete to entrepreneur — has a chapter, sometimes multiple chapters, on how missing the mark helped shape a plan that eventually led to victory.

In training, the term has many connotations, and failure can often lead to gains, such as incorporating sets to failure, a popular workout technique that’s used to build hypertrophy. It may seem disastrous for a moment but failing at lifting a maximum weight often means you left it all on the gym floor instead of leaving some in the tank. Effort can lead to gains as well.

What failure should never mean is allowing a few missed reps to cause you to begin missing workouts regularly. Those missed moments let you reassess and reprogram and can be golden opportunities for you to nail your goal, not come up short, on any future attempts.

Think of it like this: The only failures you should be concerned about are the ones forcing you to put limitations on yourself or preventing you from achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself.

You can rethink failure as not the end, but just a page in your personal blueprint for success. And there are several ways to help you get over the hump. So, buckle down and enjoy the ride. You’re gonna have one helluva success story to tell.

Prepare Not to Fail (the Next Time)

Perhaps the most famous “failure” in athletics is NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan, who often credits multiple failures as the motivation for his success: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Jordan is one of many superstars fueled by failure. Oftentimes the problem may be mechanical — your tight hips hindered your ability to drive the weight north in your last squat, or your calves wore down during the final mile of your marathon. Take notes — even record your training on your phone — and make the right adjustments during your next training cycle.

muscular black man in a full running sprint

A lot of times, failure goes beyond the physical — it could be in your head. A healthy mindset can make the difference between failure and success, and it oftentimes doesn’t need some New Age methods to fix, just some self-help hacks that can go a long way toward regaining your winning strategy.

  1. Visualize your success: What does victory look like in your mind? Is your hand being raised as the winner, or are you digging your feet deep into the floor, maintaining impeccable form as you pull a new personal deadlift record?
    Spend several moments each night before bed going over every detail of what the perfect training scenario looks like to you, from your clothing fitting just right, to your favorite workout song on continuous loop, to gripping that bar as if no human can pull it away from you. You’ll be amazed at how your visualization can turn to reality.
  1. Be aggressive: Hesitate for one moment in any event and you know how quickly circumstances can unravel. Like NFL great Lawrence Taylor once said, go out there “like a bunch of crazed dogs,” and use your controlled aggression to add extra oomph to your workouts to squeeze out an extra rep, shave a few seconds off your mile time, or give the heavy bags a few extra jabs in class. Extra effort eventually leads to greater gains.
  1. Stay positive while you stay the course: There’s an old cliché: “Tough times never last, but tough people do,” and it applies here. Not every workout will be perfect — you will have those days when nothing goes right for whatever reason. Resist the urge to dwell on it. Instead, chalk it up as a loss and come back swinging harder the next day. Bad habits can be broken, and this is one simple method to help keep you on the right course.
  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: No one has all the answers. Even a superstar like NFL quarterback Tom Brady has a team of trainers, coaches, and nutritionists working with him year-round to help him tweak what is wrong. Why should you think you can do it all by yourself? There are tons of trainers and resources you can find either at your local fitness center or online. With a little research, you may be able to find the expert who can pinpoint that one flaw that can make the difference between missing the mark and being the next success story.