Fail Again. Fail Better. Learning from Defeats

Derry, Armagh, Tipperary, Cork and Donegal all lost at the weekend. Is it true that you can learn more from defeat than victory? The evidence is that you can.

McGregor Will Be Back

After all the hype and coverage, Conor McGregor lost to Nate Diaz in UFC 196. After the bout he engaged in a serious bout of introspection, but also took a well aimed shot at his critics, many of whom took to social media to mock and taunt him in defeat: “When the history books are written, I showed up. You showed up on Twitter.” He is right. He did show up, and combat challenge sports are full of examples where people haven’t shown up!

I have to say I showed up too, setting the alarm for 4:15am and emerging bleary eyed and puff faced to watch the action. There was a fascination in watching McGregor’s latest fight, and not being expert in any way about UFC, I willingly joined the many people attracted by his bravado and charisma. And the savage sledging it has to be said.

McGregor’s post fight sentiment reminded me of the famous Theodore Roosevelt quote:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.


Learning from Defeat

It’s often said in sport that you learn more from defeat than you do from victory. Is that true or are these merely words of cold consolation to soften the blow of defeat.

This weekend Tyrone overran Derry to record their fourth victory over the old enemy in this season’s series of games. What have Derry learned from those defeats? We will have to wait until May 26 to see for sure.

Who else has learned and turned crushing disappointment into victory?

In 2009 Tipperary lost a hurling final they felt they should have won, but they returned better, and faster in 2010.

Seven Ways to Learn

Some teams never learn. Some sportsmen never learn. But if you are to learn from defeat, how do you learn and what do you do with it?


1. Analyse your processes. Did you do what you trained to do? Did you do it when it mattered or did you deviate from the gameplan. After Saturday night’s bout questions remained. Should McGregor have let himself get involved in a ju jitsu grapple on the floor that led to defeat, or should he have kept on his feet and aimed to box his way through the bout?

2. Forget about the emotion of defeat, be analytical and self critical. What did you do? Why did you do it? What could you do better or differently? From pre match prep to decisions on the pitch or in the ring. Did emotion ever get the better of you.

3. Use the data. Ollie Canning of Galway always demanded the match facts at half time and full time in matches. Who was making the tackles and were they making enough tackles? Could they make more?  At the weekend after their victory against Derry, Tiernan McCann reeled off a series of scoring and shooting stats; this suggests that percentages and data is part of the Tyrone measure of success. Processes lead to outcomes.

4. Which brings us to set targets. Have you set targets for performance? Distance covered. Passes completed. Tackles made. Shots on goal. Punches thrown. If you have set targets and you meet or exceed them, the outcome will look after itself.

5. Don’t lose sight of the positives. Give credit for what was done well. In a game of small margins, there will be a lot of good things. Take credit for these and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater over the single issues and the marginals that are negatives.

6. Consider the environment and the game context. Was playing away from home a factor for example. Or playing in Croke Park? Were players prepared for the environment, was it familiar or was a new environment or context a factor? Mayo a few years back evidently gave each match a number including the All Ireland final. They didn’t win it granted, but their approach was an attempt to treat each match in the same way and to avoid the distraction of hype around a semi final, or final, or lost focus because of the impact of the venue.

7. Listen to players. A coach I know uses survey monkey to get feedback on all aspects of his work from the effectiveness of sessions to feedback on wins and losses. Listening to players (if you are a coach) and players listening to other players can provide a unique insight on what went right and wrong.

When all is said and done, you can take the data and apply to your preparation. Next time it might work, then again it might not. You might fail again. But you can continue to learn. Consider the experience of Loughgiel Shamrocks who lost six Antrim finals before they eventually won one. They went on to win two Ulster club titles and a first All-Ireland title for thirty years.

In defeat Conor McGregor also quoted Samuel Beckett’s famous lines from Worstward Ho “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

If you fail often enough it tends to lead to success.