I remember distinctly the cold, wet pool tiles under my feet, and the light reflecting down on my shiny swim cap, as my 13 year old stomach roiled with nerves. New to this racing business, the ability to handle my anxiety was minimal, to start a swimming race was akin to asking me to jump into the pits of hell. And though the clear blue water in the 50m swimming pool appeared calm and gentle, I knew that it would judge each and every swimmer that day as cutting as any test or trial you would ever face. Still, I held my breath, ignored the nervous goosebumps on my skin, and stepped onto the diving block for my first race at state level.
What happened after this is a blur - as the gun went and I launched myself off the blocks, something happened inside my brain. I had a brain snap! Everything that I thought I knew about swimming and racing flew right out of my brain (much like numbers, quotes, and concepts did when I entered an exam space at school), as I entered that water I seemed to lose control of my limbs, and as I glided to the surface I literally had no idea what I was doing. Which is why, in this race, I swam the wrong stroke. I was supposed to be in the 50m Breaststroke race, my first big race on my Paralympic journey, yet there I was, swimming front crawl. After about 10 metres of the race something popped in my brain and I became conscious again of where I was and what I was supposed to be doing - and in that moment I felt my heart drop. I switched to breaststroke and hoped upon hope that no-one had seen my mistake. Swimming front crawl in a breaststroke race? Someone is going to notice, and someone did. I was disqualified .... and I felt like a failure.
When you stuff up, do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, swim the wrong stroke, what emotions do you feel? You might feel shame, embarrassment, mortification, anger, frustration, and the undeniable urge to give up! I felt all of these things, at the age of 13, when I swam the wrong stroke in the 50m Breaststroke race, but any one, at any age, can feel these emotions. And they are hard emotions to deal with, they can make your body react in uncomfortable ways, cause you to lash out or cave in, and perhaps, most importantly, they can cause your neural pathways that "create" stress and anxiety to strengthen their hold on you. So how can we break this neural mapping? How can we teach ourselves to be okay with failure and put in place strategies to overcome setbacks we inevitably face in life? And why am I asking these questions today?
This quote is from an article written by a 16 year old student for the Guardian newspaper earlier this week. In this article, Orli, who is grappling with mock GCSE exams, talks about the experience of high schools today, and how the pressure to succeed on other peoples terms (i.e., the government's) is causing teenagers to have to deal with stress, anxiety, and the fear of failure. Students are being educated in a factory like way, with each exam a "quality spot test," used to determine the outcomes for a young persons entire life. In this current educational climate, we are not teaching our students to be the best, we are teaching them to fear failure, and through teaching them to fear failure, we are causing an increase in stress and anxiety that can be catastrophic. The neural mapping, the unconscious patterns that are being created in their brains that perpetuate this fear, this negativity, and ultimately lack of self belief, has to be broken. I cannot see the government changing the educational climate any time soon, so it is ultimately up to the teens themselves, their parents, teachers, and external providers, to educate and enable the skills to deal with stress and anxiety, and learn how to accept, and dare I say it, even come to love failure. After I was disqualified from my race, I did what any embarrassed 13 year old girl would do, and I promptly ran away to hide and have a good cry. I wanted to give up. I felt shame so badly that I knew there was no way I could swim ever again. Ultimately, after a talk with my dad, I realised that that one moment of failure, that one moment of shame, was over. I had the choice, to let that moment stop me achieving a dream, or use it as a lesson to grow and move forward. In recognising that choice, I chose to grow and move forward - hence achieving my dream to swim at the Paralympic Games. I had started to change my neural paths, I was embracing Hebb's Law, which
The system is teaching people that your best isn't good enough, that you must constantly try harder and that one bad result makes you a failure. Success is measured by how well you remember the criteria on a given day.
Failure became a way to succeed, and if we can teach our teens a life skill it has to be this - not to fear failure, but to embrace it, use it for good, use it to lead you to success.