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Great Competitors Fail

Basketball is Psychology XXXIV

“Victorious is the person who knows how to make stepping stones out of stumbling stones.” - John C. Maxwell



We don’t know how to fail. Helicopter parenting and 8th place trophies have tried to shelter us from failing. As a result, when we do get benched, lose, or miss the game winner, we don’t know how to deal with it.

Michael Jordan knows how to fail. He didn’t make varsity as a sophomore, and it was the best thing that could’ve happened; he learned how to respond to failure.

In his commercial, he proudly announces, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. I have failed over and over and over again, and that is why I succeed.”

Notice how he’s implying he succeeded because of his failures, not in spite of them.

Learning How To Fail

If failure is the “key to success”, then why do so many of us try to avoid it? Why do we believe failure is bad? Why do we think “failure is not an option”?

As a result of this mentality, some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation are now teaching classes on failure.

Princeton refers to failure as success and innovation’s sibling. The class description states,

“Failure is like gravity- a subtle, pervasive, but inevitable fact of life. Students are fixated on success, but success has a less well-understood sibling, which is often a precursor and prerequisite for that success: FAILURE.

Although we may treat failure as a regrettable event, it has the potential to become a strategic resource, invaluable in its ability to show us- sometimes painfully and usually uncomfortably- what we don’t yet know, but need in order to succeed.”

The truth is, failure is inevitable and it’s not just part of basketball, it’s a big part of basketball. Take a look at the NBA’s all-time leaders in missed shots:

1. Kobe bryant: 13,766

2. John Havlicek: 13,417

3. Karl Malone: 12,682

4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 12,470

5. Michael Jordan: 12,345

These are some of the greatest players of all time, and their average shooting percentage is 48. They missed more shots than they made, but they didn’t stop shooting; they accept it, learn from it, and keep shooting.

People who have a growth mindset, don’t even think they’re failing, they know it’s part of the process, so they call failure learning. Kobe exemplified this when he said, “Failure doesn’t exist. What does that even mean?”

Responding to Failure

No one goes through their basketball career with no losses and no missed shots. Expect setbacks, and understand our natural psychological response to failure so you know how to fight back.

Failure can distort our perception.

Failure makes the same goal seem less attainable and makes you devalue your abilities. If you miss a shot, you can’t convince yourself you are a bad shooter, rather you should be thinking about what you learned from that miss and what adjustments need to be made so you can make the next shot.

Failure can convince you to give up.

Often times, failure can leave an emotional wound. Our brain doesn’t like that, so our brains are going to tell us not to try, so that we won’t get wounded again. Most fail and then think, “I tried and failed. There’s nothing I can do to succeed, I’ll quit.” so they can avoid failure. And it works, they protect their short-term ego and avoid failure, but they also avoid success. It’s impossible to succeed if you quit.

But, you can fight back. The healthiest response to failure is to focus on variables you can control.

This is the benefit to failing. When you fail, what matters is what you learn and then do next, not the past- that’s out of your control, but you always control your response. If you had a bad game, you can control how early you show up to practice the next day, how much film you watch, how focused you are in practice, and how much effort you give. When you win and score 50 points, you're a lot less likely to refocus on the details help you get better. Failure gives you insight you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Failing is a Good Thing

Competitors fail. High achievers fail. Innovators fail. Record-breakers fail.

If you’re not failing, you’re probably not pushing yourself enough. If you never mess up in ball-handling drills, you’re probably only going at a comfortable speed. To get better you have to get out of that comfortable speed. If you never fail when you’re maxing out in the weightroom, you can’t find out the edge of your capabilities. If you’re not failing, you are not reaching your full potential, you’re limiting yourself. If you want to be a great basketball player, compete in everything; you will fail and that’s more than okay, it’s a sign you’re going beyond your perceived limits- that’s how you get better.

You make things better and improve faster when you fail.

A ceramics teacher proved this when he had his class mold clay into pots. He asked half of his class to focus on making the best possible pot and he asked the other half of the class to make as many pots as possible. They were both given equal amounts of time to work.

The group focused on producing a high quantity, had much higher quality pots.

The group focused on perfecting a high quality pot had assembled a useless pile of clay.

Why? Everytime the group who was focused on making a lot of pots finished one, they could identify their mistakes, then quickly correct it in the next one.

The group focused on quality had no failures to learn from. Failure is a great teacher.

We tend to think of quality and quantity as an ‘either-or’ deal (you either have good quality work or a high quantity of work). In reality, good quality work is the byproduct of a high quantity of work.

Shooting is a great example of this.

During the season, Steph Curry shoots 300 shots after practice, and in the offseason he increases it to 500. Do some digging on the greatest shooters in the game and you’ll find they simply put up a higher quantity than anyone else. As a result, their shot has higher quality. They learn through trial and error. They see misses as part of the process.

Ray Allen hated it when people told him he was blessed with the God-given ability to shoot. He would always reply:

“God will give you a lot of things in life, but he’s not going to give you your jumpshot. Only hard work will do that.

Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day. Not some days, every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most. The answer is me.”

Just like quantity leads to quality, failure leads to success. Failure is a symptom of trying a lot, which is how you succeed.


When we fail:

We learn to adjust.

We develop grit.

We are motivated to get better.

We learn how to innovate and find new answers to difficult problems.

We learn how to be persistent and resilient.


The benefits of failing are too great to avoid failure. Embrace failure and the lessons you can learn from it. If you are not failing, you are not trying as hard as you should be trying.


Action Steps:

1. Don’t believe the lie that you are a failure.

When you fail (when, not if), that does not mean you are a failure, it simply means you failed, but it does not define you. There’s a big difference. It’s impossible to learn the lesson and move forward if you believe you are a failure because it’s a self-limiting belief.

2. Handle success like you handle failure.

This is one of Pat Summitt’s definite dozens. It doesn’t matter if you won or lost the game, your work ethic should stay the same. Mentally tough players are able to respond to wins and losses the same way, by not getting too high or too low, by looking at what they need to improve on and what they can learn for the next game.

3. Don’t take it personally.

If you want to be a great basketball player, you have to be willing to fail, a lot. The greatest basketball players hold records for the most misses. Every game, LeBron, KD, Steph and James Harden are moving up on the list, but they’re not losing sleep over it. They take each failure, miss, or loss seriously so they can learn and improve, but they don’t take it personally; they understand it’s just part of the game.


Written by Julie Fournier




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