“Failure is the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success. Product failure ranges from failure to sell the product to fracture of the product, in the worst cases leading to personal injury, the province of forensic engineering.”—Wikipedia
Since we have many black belt Brazilian jiu jitsu masters in the StrongFirst community, as well as many other black belts from other arts, what I write now will likely surprise some of you, but not all of you.
In Brazilian jiu jitsu, failure is considered a unique opportunity to learn.
When a choke or joint lock is applied, the way you submit is by tapping. Tapping can mean many things.
It can mean you accepted the loss, and hopefully you did so in an intelligent way. Before you were choked out or had your arm broken, you simply stated with the tap that you accepted the loss.
Looking back at our opening definition, tapping can also mean we failed the major objective, which was probably to win against or at least not lose to a higher belt practitioner. Learning to tap is the first a-ha moment for most Brazilian jiu jitsu students. They learn that the first task in a fight is not losing. Winning is the next step.
How is this relevant to kettlebell training or the StrongFirst principles?
Teaching the Signs of Failure
When we teach the StrongFirst principles to our students, we must understand that we are preparing them for scenarios where everything won’t be all nice. It is normal for all of us that as we get closer to breaking our personal records, we start to risk form, and probably our health, due to succumbing to bad decisions.
While our students are beginners, we must teach them the signs of failure that they must respect. Some will say that if you fail, you practice failure. That sounds great, but the relationship between practice and failure is a far more complex issue than can be encompassed in a single catchy-sounding sentence for a meme. But when a student understands how fatigue builds and what the signs are, then the decision about the next step to take becomes easy to make.
Losing tension, improper breathing, change in speed, change in range of motion, change in overall good form—when these changes are are noticed, it is key that we give our students the feedback for correction, give a regression in order for them to continue, or have them stop altogether.
The Relationship Between Failure and Records
Left unattended, most athletes simply chase records, and they will count any performance toward that record even if it includes bad form. That is a totally inappropriate mentality that will lead to later problems.
First of all, let’s consider that there is more than one definition of “record.” Is it a record or a technical record? The latter means the heaviest weight I can lift in the deadlift or the most snatches I can perform in the five-minute test while maintaining the form listed in the StrongFirst Level I Certification manual.
We also have to deal with the reality of failing, what can happen, and if we are ready for that. So, not only does failure makes you better in failing, but learning how to fail professionally teaches you how to lower the risk of injury in case you want to explore beyond your limits. In that regard, it is important for students and athletes of all levels to understand and experience failure, no matter their aspirations.
The Importance of Professional Failure
Failure is a part of all sports, but failing professionally is something not widely taught. As instructors and leaders, we must demonstrate both proper spotting and the proper way of missing a lift.
Missing a lift means simply that you could not perform that lift while maintaining the standards of form. Even with your best effort, you cannot finish the lift properly, so you do not proceed. That is a professional tap out, and the moment where you learn a lot about yourself, your technique, and your limits. A professional failure looks as respectable as a max effort lift—no biomechanical changes, no rounded back, etc.—just that this time, the lift is missed.
We not only show, but teach professional failure in the SFG Level I Certification. This is how important is to fail—as a professional.
Real failure is not something we teach, and it looks more like doing 130 snatches in five minutes with none of the reps living up to the standard.
So, is failing equal to practicing failure? The decision is yours.