Just like Usain Bolt wasn’t magically born the fastest man in the world, students can’t be great at everything on their first try. Any and every skill requires learning and practice, regardless of previous ability.
Then why do so many students feel so much pressure to perform perfectly at their first attempt, so much so that they’d rather not even try? There are many reasons why someone might develop a fear of failure, or rather, the perceived negative consequences of it. One of these reasons is that students might only see the great performances and results, without realising how long the journey to get there was.
So, does your first attempt bear any correlation to your best attempt? Essentially, does how good you are the first time you do something give any indication of how good you could end up being at it? To answer these questions and hopefully provide some much-needed motivation for nervous students, this blog will look at some of the greatest sporting champions in their field – and at their not-so-impressive beginnings.
Usain Bolt – arguably the worlds greatest ever sprinter. Winner of 8 gold medals and world records in both the 100m and 200m. Most people can recall exactly where they were when he won gold in the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Four years later, he dominated and lit up London 2012, before ending his Olympic career on a high with even more gold medals at Rio 2016.
But how did he do at his first ever Olympics in 2004? He was eliminated in the first round of the 200m, finishing with a time of 21.05 seconds. For comparison, he later broke the world record for this event, running it in 19.19 seconds.
When most people think of Jonny Wilkinson, they think of one game. And in that one game, they tend to think of one moment. That. Drop. Goal.
We know Jonny Wilkinson as an incredible player, twice holder of the world record for most international points and a fantastic leader for the England team for many years.
But he was not always destined for greatness. What most people don’t remember is what happened on the first match that he started for England, in June 1998. They lost 76-0, still their largest defeat to this day. Rather than letting the ‘Tour From Hell’ become the end for him, Wilkinson called it ‘a blessing in disguise’, that ultimately became the start of an impressive career. In this article, he explains how that failure allowed him to learn ‘what it takes to be the best’.
Victoria Pendleton is one the finest ever cyclists Great Britain has ever produced. She is the winner of nine world titles and 3 Olympic medals (two of these being gold).
However, the 2008 Beijing Olympics where she won gold weren’t her first Games – in 2004, she finished sixth in her time trial and ninth in the 200m sprint, with times that wouldn’t have predicted what an athlete she would go on to become.
There is almost no need to introduce Michael Jordan: a basketball legend, arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time, a model of work ethic and even a pop culture phenomenon.
What gave him this mental toughness and will to improve, though? Being rejected by his high school’s varsity basketball team. In his inspiring 1994 book I Can’t Accept Not Trying, he writes: ‘When I got cut from the varsity team as a sophomore in high school, I learned something. I knew I never wanted to feel that bad again. I never wanted to have that taste in my mouth, that hole in my stomach’. From failure, he built his work ethic and his short-term goals strategy, ultimately becoming the athlete we all know.
In the 2004 Olympics, Kelly Holmes won gold in both the 800m and 1500m, which also got her named BBC Sports Personality of the Year. But the surprising thing about this is that she was 34 at the time.
In fact, she even turned her back on athletics from the age of 18. She only returned to the sport in 1992 and then spent 12 years training hard to reach the peak of her career and become one of the greatest British athletes who, to this day, still holds the British records for the 800m and 1000m.
Shane Warne had one of the best and most distinguished careers as a cricketer. He is widely regarded as the best spin bowler and only one man, Muttiah Muralitharan, has taken more wickets than him ever. He also has the accolade of bowling ‘the ball of the century’.
But how did he do in his debut test series for Australia? Pretty terribly. In his first match against India, he took only one wicket for 150 runs. A few weeks later in this series, he took no wickets for 78 runs, resulting in terrible figures of 1 wicket for 228 runs.
Final thought: Not just applicable to sport
Failure at some stage is inevitable, and most of it will happen at the start when we have the least knowledge and skills. However, the amount people can improve with practice is truly staggering. Apart from sport examples, these before and after images of budding artists are a great example of the power of deliberate practice and resilience.
Believing that your first attempt is somehow related to your potential leads to many students saying things such as ‘I’m not a maths person’. But anyone can learn. Everyone can improve. The message from these sporting champions’ career couldn’t be clearer: you can get better.
For more resources and tips to help your students develop a growth mindset, take a look at our handy guide.