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The Instrument of Failure

By Jamie MacDonald, Special to Mass Hockey, 02/20/15, 10:45AM EST


Failure should be viewed as trying something you can't do today but might do tomorrow.

View failure as part of the process. It is the key to growth, development and perseverance.

Failure is too often viewed as a negative occurrence.

Hanging on the wall of head coach Jamie Rice's office at Babson College is this quote:

"Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm."

Like a lot of motivating professionals who believe in success, Rice is also a believer in the instrument of failure.

The key to believing in failure, though, is not to take it at face value. Failure doesn't have to be poured in a bucket of unmet life goals or allowed to build up in front of someone's chosen path.

Failure can also be viewed as trying something you can't do today but that you might tomorrow. And that's the key: View failure as part of a process.

In other words, failure, in hockey and in life, is a good thing.

"I think mistakes and failure, one, they're instructive, but, two, they enable you to reach for and get to a higher level," says Rice. "Too often failure is labeled as something really negative. And I think if we can look at failure as something to grow from and change your own perspective on, then it can be something very positive."

Rice, who graduated from Babson in 1990 and served as an assistant at Colby College, Dartmouth College, Brown University, and Northeastern University before returning to take over the Babson program in 2004, points to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Did their perceived failures over the two previous Super Bowl losses provide lessons for growth?

"I think it did," he says. "Without failure, there's no learning, there's no reaching, there's no growing."

Hockey, by its very nature, with all of its moving parts, from a bouncing puck or chippy ice to split-second decisions or anxiety about making them, is full of failure. 

Pucks don’t always lay flat. Passes don’t always land on the tape. Shots can’t always find a way through traffic or to the back of the net. Rice points out that in hockey, as in any competitive sport with a scoreboard, the opponent is likely trying just as hard to win, too. Gaining that perspective helps gain an advantage on the challenges of failure.

“We talk about it all the time with our kids here,” says Rice. “The other team wants to win just as badly. They're lifting weights, they're having practice, they're watching film, they're eating right, they're stretching. And it's great to be driven to want to succeed, but in perspective.”

This was Rice talking on a Saturday afternoon after then No. 10-ranked Babson lost, 6-1, to No. 1 Norwich the night before.

“We had a meeting this morning,” Rice, says, looking back at the loss. “We didn't win. It's not the outcome we wanted. There are things we could do better and there were probably things we did well. At the end of the day, we have another game. It's a new day. Yesterday doesn't matter and tomorrow hasn't happened. We need to do our best today.”

Babson won in overtime later that night.

On a broader scale, failure can scrape more than just a moment in time. Failure can feel, particularly for young players, as if it’s life-altering. In some cases, failure devastates a young player and his or her parents.

A son or daughter who may have practiced and put in all the long, hard hours anyone could possibly have imagined isn’t always going to make the team or the next level. And it’s what happens on the other side of the experience that can determine whether another great success waits around the corner.

Failure is often the byproduct of reaching out of one’s comfort zone – something likely recommended by the most successful talents. 

“Safe is very rarely something that promotes growth,” says Rice. “Safe may work, but, as far as growth, and certainly when you're talking about youth hockey and development of players, from the youngest age on up, safe is kind of like being just good enough. It's not pursuing excellence.”

Michael Jordan, famously, was cut from a basketball team. He was also competitive enough to overcome the setback. Being resilient plays a significant role. 

“Failure for these kids is building some resiliency, building some toughness,” Rice says. “And, from a scientific standpoint, in the most competitive people, it spurs on new growth mentally. It really provides that spark.”

Learning to overcome fears of failure may be worth practicing as much as shooting a few pucks in the basement or working on stops and starts on the ice.

“Having a predisposition to hard work is an underrated component in evaluation,” says Rice. “If they're competitive, they've probably had adversity. That resilience, that elasticity is really important. That gets back to growth. We want kids who are winners not because they played for quote-unquote winning teams. They’re winners because they've pushed themselves, they’ve challenged themselves and they've overcome something. They've lost and then they've won.”

Failure, for as much as it can hurt in the moment, can also be viewed as worthy of chasing rather than dodging.

“Whatever endeavor it is in life," says Rice, "it’s the lifelong learners, the ones who learn from their mistakes, the ones who learn how to build a better mousetrap, the ones who overcome the adversity, they’re usually the ones who persevere over the long haul.”