How to Deal with Failure: Reframe and Move Forward

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Air Force pararescueman swims
An Air Force pararescue jumper trainee swims to the finish point on Aug. 17, 2011, at Calaveras Lake, Texas. (Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/3rd Audiovisual Squadron)

We all have a history of succeeding and failing, even quitting. That is life. But it is how we process these failures that enable us to move on to being a stronger person. Grit often is defined as a mixture of perseverance and a healthy desire to grow. When things don’t go as planned, grit is what often keeps us going. As a wise friend of mine stated, “You don’t have to be something to be somebody. Keep moving forward.”

In a recent Tactical Fitness Report podcast, my partner, former Navy SEAL Jeff Nichols, and I discussed what occurs a majority of the time in Special Operations training programs -- quitting/failing. Unfortunately, most Special Ops training programs (SEAL, SWCC, AFPJ, Special Forces, RECON, MARSOC and others) have high attrition rates during their assessment and selection phases. 

Quitting or failing to meet the standards is common. Injuries are common as well. However, if you never have failed to meet the standard and have earned a good track record as a team player, often injuries will be given time to heal, and a candidate can be rolled into the next class versus being dropped from the class. Sometimes, injuries from pure bad luck or from improper preparation can yield negative results that no longer allow you to stay in training. Whether you quit, failed to meet the standard or were medically dropped from the course, dealing with this defeat is hard. But with some reframing and learning from the situation, you can come back stronger and try again or move on to bigger and greater challenges in life.

A proper mindset is required to defeat the quit demon, and opposing thoughts can enter our minds when the days turn into night and it is cold, dark, wet and sandy. However, 75%-80% of people have a change of heart, lose their focus or forget their why and make a decision to quit instead of continuing on with the program.

Since this goal of getting to and through selection can take years to develop, quitting can be a devastating moment to many who feel they failed or were too weak at the moment of mental and physical challenge. Regardless of why we fail, getting over failure for people who may have never failed or quit anything in their lives can be a life-altering experience -- for the good or bad.

Fortunately, many people who fail to complete these special ops training programs or any competitive/challenging goal move on and find a new challenge. You see, most people who attempt these professions anyway are tough-minded people on average with a competitive personality. Taking that same drive and ambition to find another goal and opportunity is the next challenge, and growing from the previous failure is part of the journey.

In fact, one of the officers in my BUD/S class who quit is now a rear admiral in the Surface Navy with a beautiful wife and family. Life went on for him, and he is excelling. Others have become doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs, and some are serving in the highest levels of our military and government.

Failing or quitting can and will make you stronger if you let it. The problem occurs when the individual is so devastated by this failure that they fail to ever try again. Quitting can make you weaker if you let it. Learn from it and move on.

Quitting and Moving On

Now, there is a big difference between leaving on your own terms for other opportunities and quitting. Both are not an easy transition. In fact, leaving military service, whether you are of retirement age or not, creates similar feelings of quitting when you leave your support group of friends and co-workers, change jobs and move to a new city. These changes are not easy and highly stressful, but the journey forward must continue with the same drive and determination of previous goals and accomplishments. Do not give up. Find yourself again and move on.

I remember quitting baseball when in high school. That feeling of not being good enough to be on the team, not willing to put in the extra time to overcome the deficiencies and leaving my friends on the team stuck with me. It still haunts me to the point of helping me never to want to have that feeling again. In fact, I attribute that feeling and learning from it as a part of the success I had in future goals and challenges (athletically, academically, militarily and beyond).

The purpose of this article is to help with the transition that your decisions or failures abruptly caused. On the healthy side of the stress of transition, you will know one of two things after quitting or failing: 

  1. You screwed up, and you will do everything in your abilities to get back to your goal you lost sight of previously -- perhaps by training harder on any weaknesses you discovered on this journey. Or,
  2. You made a decision because it was not for you and will move on to bigger and better things in life.

Do not fall into a pattern of self-loathing and fail to achieve anything ever again. Realize that you are better than that, or you would not have even had the guts to attempt any Special Ops training program.

Stew Smith works as a presenter/editorial board with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

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