Facing Failure

I was never a very athletic child. Sports didn’t make much sense to me and I would much rather be playing with action figures or video games that throwing a ball or swinging a bat. However, my parents thought it would be good for me to be a part of a team and I found myself at the ripe old age of nine playing little league baseball. The first day of practice I had no real idea of what to expect. I figured some adult would simply guide me where I was supposed to go and tell me what I needed to do. That was how I preferred to accomplish things anyway. You tell me what to do and I’ll do it. No need to complicate this transaction any further.

On the cloudy morning of our first practice, our initial assignment was to split off into pairs and practice throwing a ball back and forth to each other. Seemed simple enough. I chose to partner with Tommy, a kid I recognized from my class. The funny thing is, even though I was with a friend; my adrenaline was pumping at the thought of having to perform in front of others. Though there was no way to prove it in the moment, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was watching me specifically. Looking back, I’m sure every kid had the same thought.

As I began pacing backwards away from my partner, taking giant steps to the coaches specified distance, I can remember thinking “Why the heck are we so far away from each other?” But sure enough, that was the assignment and far be it from me to speak up if no one else was going to say anything.

Tommy threw first and, even though I was still secretly afraid of the ball hitting me right in my tiny kid face, I thrust my glove in the general direction of the ball and caught it. Now we were talking! This might not actually be so bad.

Riding the high of the success I summoned all the strength my sleight frame could muster and attempted to launch the ball in the vicinity of my friend. As the ball left my hand, I instantly knew I was in trouble. Even though I put everything I had into propelling this nine inch orb towards the intended target, the baseball landed barely half-way to where Tommy was standing. Tommy begrudgingly walked towards the ball and I mumbled out an apology as the coach hit me with a “No biggie Mark, try again.” Now I was frazzled and the next throw from Tommy missed my glove and sent me running. Two mistakes in a row? My face was beginning to heat up from embarrassment. None of the other kids seemed to be having any trouble at all. Fighting back the initial welling of tears I took my stance and tried to throw again, even though I knew deep down I had no way of getting that ball into Tommy’s mitt. Sure enough, the ball fell way short of where it was supposed to be.

I don’t remember the rest of the practice, but somehow I made it through until the end and sulked my way to the car where my mom was waiting to pick me up. The moment I was inside and the door was closed, I burst into tears. “I’m the worst player on the team!” I sobbed as my mom attempted to console me. “I’m never going back! I hate this stupid game!”

Twenty three years later I can still pull up that feeling of humiliation as I was the only one who wasn’t able to complete a seemingly simple athletic task. Even though now I can look back and realize that, objectively, I was physically the smallest guy on the team and I had spent absolutely no time practicing how to throw a ball. I expected myself to be able to do it. I should have been able to throw that ball. Why? Well I was so good at everything else in my life. I could make people laugh, I was a straight A student who breezed through school, and I was constantly praised for being ahead of other kids my age when it came to knowing facts and figures.  My entire identity was wrapped up in being smart and successful. So imagine my shock when I was forced to face the fact that I was bad at something; especially, something that seemed so banal to the average boy my age.

My mom had a very hard time seeing me upset. I was the baby of the family after all! She wanted to make everything OK and to let me know I was fine exactly the way I was. Part of that message was exactly what I needed, but she and I were ignoring the bigger problem: I had no skills when it came to facing tasks that did not come naturally to me. I had no framework for how to deal with performance adversity. My two options were to quit or to suffer through it and come out the other side foreclosing on this activity as a future endeavor.

I started to develop a failure orientation. I would rather run away from difficult tasks that seemed outside my ability then rely on appropriate support and accommodations to help me work my way towards a goal. The goal in this case would have been to increase my distance in throwing a baseball. Instead I prayed for rain to come so practice or games would be cancelled. I could feel a surge of relief when that happened. One time my aunt, whom I never felt very close to, died and my mom offered up the idea that maybe I was too sad to go to practice. You can bet I jumped at that idea.  

In my work with gifted kids, I’ve encountered my younger self many times. Kids who have a real struggle when it comes to joining clubs, practicing instruments, participating in sports, or hanging with social groups. Kids who are highly sensitive and struggle with the idea that they can’t do something and that must mean something terrible about who they are as human beings. What I needed, and what they need, is to understand that failure is not a sentence handed down about whether we can or cannot perform a task, but a mile marker that lets us know how far we need to go. Additionally, the kids I work with (and my younger self) might not have what they ultimately need in terms of support to succeed. What would have been helpful back when I was nine, would have been for a coach to pull me aside privately, put my “failure” into a context as completely normal, and tell me he’s going to work with me next practice on how to get that ball to travel a few feet farther and that by the end of the season I’ll be able to double my throwing distance.

Truth be told, baseball is not all that important to me now. It doesn’t tear me up inside that I didn’t successfully become an MLB player or work through my issues that day in practice. That was only a symptom of a bigger problem I was facing at the time. My identity was so wrapped up in being good at everything that my sense of self was threatened anytime I was faced with a challenge that was outside of my comfort zone. It wasn’t an issue that I didn’t succeed in little league baseball; it was an issue that I was too embarrassed to try.