Failure: why it’s ok and how you can use it to be successful

By Kat Knights - writer, tutor and mentor at Professional Academy

In the summer of 1996 the England team were playing Germany in the semi-finals of the European Football Championships. The English lions were confident having just beaten Spain on penalties in the quarter finals, but after extra time England and Germany were locked 1-1. The result would be decided on penalties. The sides became locked in a nail-biting shootout that saw them tied at 5-5. England’s Gareth Southgate stepped up to take the sixth penalty but it was saved by Germany’s, Andreas Kopke. Then Kopke’s teammate Andreas Moller stepped up and won it for Germany, sending them to the final. Moller was a hero. Southgate was a lion left licking his wounds.

We all fail. For many of us it’s a disappointing and lonely place and one that we try to avoid in the future. However, if you can understand why you fail you will become stronger mentally and this will help you progress and develop in the future. Failure is part of success.

To explain; let me tell you a story…about table tennis.

A story about table tennis

Matthew Syed is an author and speaker specialising in high performance. But in his previous career he was a table tennis player. In fact he was the number one England table tennis number for almost a decade.

Syed’s father was a supportive figure and someone who encouraged him to take risks; risks that would take him from his comfort zone and help him reach his full potential. His father also instilled a strong sense of self improvement, self reliance, and tenacity towards life.

In 2000 the Olympics was hosted by Sydney, Australia. After four years of build up Syed was ready to attempt to take home a medal for Team GB. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and everything had been engineered for Syed to peak at this one moment in time.

His first match was against the German, Peter Franz. Syed felt confident that he could take a medal. His preparation leading up to the match had been ideal with a holding camp on the Gold Coast where he had two great sparring partners with a similar style to Franz.

Just before Syed entered the arena to play Franz the venue manager told him that the BBC were going to air the match. Syed could already see the Union Jacks flying in the air clutched in the hands of the hopeful spectators. Before he walked into the arena Syed’s coach turned to him and reflected. ‘What happens over the next 40 minutes will determine whether the last four years have been worth it.’

Those words were meant to motivate and inspire Syed, but his early shots in the match were disappointing. He missed the table and just couldn’t connect with the 60 mph ball to return it. It was a classic case of choking (a sports term for crumbling under pressure). In 20 minutes he was out of the tournament and out of the Olympics. He had lost 29-2.

Syed was lost and thoroughly disappointed with himself. In a dark moment he reflected on what had happened and felt that the sacrifices he had made to get to the Olympics had been a waste of time.

So, what next?

Adopting a growth mindset and re-building after failure

After two weeks in the doldrums Syed’s mindset began to change. He considered whether learning more about why he had failed could help him play better and cope with failure in the future. It was time to read books – a lot of books.

Syed read about the psychology of stress and the brain patterns associated with it. He learned lessons from aviation, the military and other sports where stress and failure are common.

He discovered that how you interpret failure is key to how you deal with it.  If you tell yourself that failure means you don’t have what it takes, then it’s destructive. But if you interpret failure as an opportunity to get better then you grow and develop, and that’s positive.

Syed’s growth mindset helped him go on to become English champion in 2001. In the same year he also won the men's singles event at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships, in Delhi. He was also a member of the England men's team that won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, 2002.

Making failure part of success

So, what happened to Gareth Southgate after that defeat in the summer of 1996?

He wasn’t left licking his wounds forever. Having a growth mindset helped him to keep moving forwards, even becoming manager of the England football team.

Success is about having a willingness to engage with and learn from your failures. If you can do that, then you’re already winning.


Kat is a writer, tutor and mentor at Professional Academy.

She specialises in marketing and self improvement. She owns her own Pilates business where she has brought together both specialisms with great success.

Prior to joining Professional Academy in 2014, Kat spent a year as a learning & development trainer at Williams Lea and six years in sales and marketing roles at DHL.

Kat is an enthusiastic and motivating person. She always brings a sense of zest and humour to her work.

When Kat isn't working she enjoys running and, of course, Pilates!