Failing Better

I have more reason than most to dislike the Mayo football team. We shipped many bad beatings at their hands. My last ever game for Sligo was in Castlebar in 2008 – we were beaten by 13 points and I was substituted at half time, Ronan McGarrity having done a number on me.

However their more recent exploits (and perhaps the fact that it’s no longer me out there being beaten by them!) have given me no choice but to admire them. Their rollercoaster journey to the All-Ireland final last year lit up the summer, and I eagerly devoured any media coverage surrounding it.

Indeed I heard a great phrase in the aftermath of that epic final. One of my favourite sports journalists – Kieran Shannon (a man who had previously worked with the Mayo team in his capacity as a sports psychologist) – used it in his wonderful article about the match.

He spoke about ‘failing better’, and how this Mayo team have been doing just that since they twice capitulated to Kerry in All-Ireland finals in the noughties.

Here are Kieran’s words…

“In 2012 when they went two early goals down to Donegal, everyone feared they were about to endure a capitulation along the lines of 2004 and 2006. They didn’t. For the first time since 1996, a Mayo team had died in an All Ireland with their boots on.

In 2013 they became the first Mayo team since ’96 to be ahead at half-time. In 2016 they became the first Mayo team since ’96 to play in an All-Ireland final and not lose it. In the replay they held their opponents to a single goal, something no Mayo team had done in any of their previous five All-Irelands, and lost by just a single point. And yet yesterday they failed even better”.

I researched the phrase, and discovered it came from Irish writer Samuel Beckett who used it – not in a motivational context at all – in a piece of prose called Worstword Ho! The same article declared that the phrase (which in full reads ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’) had reached ‘peak cultural saturation’, which made me a bit reticent to talk about it today, but I like it so here goes!

I like it because it’s realistic. When setting out to achieve something worthwhile, let’s be honest – it’s more likely you will fail than succeed. ‘You have to lose one to win one’ was a phrase I heard a lot in my football days. And it’s true – most successes, when they eventually do come, are built on the back of not just one, but many failures.

I like it because it’s honest. It tells it like it is. A failure is a failure – if your goal at the start of the year is to win the All-Ireland and you reach the final and lose by a point, well then there are no two ways around it – you have failed.

But I like it most of all because it’s brave. When you try and fail, it takes courage to come back and try again, more so if you do this repeatedly, and even more so if you are in the public eye while experiencing these failures.

The thing is, while these failures are no doubt keenly felt by the Mayo players, management and supporters (and for those reading not into GAA, please don’t underestimate how hard people can take these losses), for me they are not failures but triumphs. These young men are getting the best out of themselves as athletes, as footballers, and as men. They are building character and learning things that will stand to them throughout life. They are losing, but pnly narrowly and to the best team the sport has seen in at least 35 years. They are turning up and giving of their best year after year. How many of us can say that?

I came across many brave people this week. I was asked to do something new for me – to give a motivational talk to a room full of jobseekers. I could see that some heads were down, that others seemed almost ashamed to be in the room.

But that’s the point – the fact that they were in the room, that they had made it in, unlike many others, showed me that they were determined to learn what they could from the day and come back and fail better next time….or maybe even succeed.

Good luck to them, and to anyone out there who is trying.


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