Posted On March 28, 2021

Everyone pays lip service to the idea that we should learn from your mistakes. That is a nice idea, but it sidesteps the issue of precisely what you are supposed to learn and how?

If you are going to learn something it must be useful for managing your training or preparation going forward. It must be specific enough to be be actionable.

Lifters encounter failure most dramatically when we do poorly in a meet. Other failures may cause injuries that disrupt training or competing.

Recently I came across an article by Dr. Amy C. Edmondson in the Harvard Business Review (April 2011) called Strategies for Learning from Failure. While most of these strategies apply directly to business situations, I found some that I believe can be used by lifters and recreational athletes.

One of the most useful things is to recognize that all failures are not the same.

Some failures occur because the individual did not follow correct procedures (aka. The Rules). Failure comes from not knowing or following good practices.

Other failures come because of complex factors that were not understood at the time.

At the other end of the spectrum are failures that come when testing out new methods, equipment, or techniques. The results are information that can be used to create more effective training in the future.

In all cases, the objective is to reduce or eliminate preventable failures.

Lets look at how these apply to lifting.


Not following correct procedures

The most common (and easily corrected) failures come when lifters do not know the rules about:

  • Legal equipment
  • Performance of a legal lift

Having been a referee for 30+ years it still surprises me to see lifters come to a meet with equipment that is not legal. This is less of a problem with raw lifting than when most competed with support gear. Bottom line: know what equipment is legal to use in a meet.

Not knowing how to perform a legal lift is probably the biggest reason for failing in meets. Too many lifters appear train in a manner that sets them up to fail in a meet in two areas:

  • Squat: Not going below parallel
  • Bench press: Too short a pause with the bar on the chest

There are other less common mistakes that occur regularly, but the two above are probably the reason for 90% of the bomb outs.

If you get red lights on a lift the time to find out why is immediately after the lift. Ask the referees what you did wrong. They will be able to tell you what they saw at that time. Waiting until later when the refs have seen dozens of other attempts gets far less reliable feedback.


The Blame Game

One of the least productive responses to failure is blaming someone else. Over decades as a competitor and referee I have seen many examples of lifters (or coaches) who blame the officials for missed lifts.

This leads to a self-defeating response. If someone else is to blame, no changes in technique are required. That is a recipe for future failures.

Blaming the refs can lead to some bizarre behavior. Among the more pathetic responses I have seen were a lifter who posted videos on YouTube after missing all 3 of his bench-press attempts. He claimed he did them perfectly (despite 3 red lights on each lift) and went on an f-bomb laced tirade about how the refs had a personal grudge against him. Another was where the girlfriend of a poorly performing lifter sat directly behind the head referee and kept up a constant string of verbal insults about the complete incompetence of the officiating through the entire meet.

The mindset that someone else is to blame for a failure is an almost 100 percent guarantee that the future will be the same as the past.


Failure from Complicated or Complex Factors

In previous newsletters I have discussed how overtraining and chronic fatigue can erode a lifters capability. This is an example of a complex factor that may not be immediately obvious because it occurs over a long period.

The astute lifter should be aware that these subtle and often unobservable factors can lead to performance failures.

One of the less appreciated issues is that when a lifter has trained hard for a contest and is in peak condition for a top performance, they are most vulnerable to becoming sick or injured. Training hard has taken so much energy that their immune system has been degraded.

Another underappreciated factor is that when you are in peak condition, you have pushed your muscles, connective tissue, and joints to their limit. You are more vulnerable to an injury when in peak condition than when training with less intensity.

Be aware and take precautions.


Experiments and Hypothesis Testing

Most of us will try out some new equipment, a new diet, or a new training routine to see how it works for us.

The best way to find out what you want is to design your own formal test that will tell you what you want to discover.

For example, if you decide to try the Safety Squat Bar, decide in advance how many weeks you will use it in your test, the sets-reps-weights, and what criteria you will use to decide if it is giving you results.

Most of us are in the habit of trying out new equipment for a few sessions and if we like it, keep using it. A structured test will give you a much better idea of whether something produces results for you or is merely an expensive doorstop.

If it fails to produce results, you want to know this. Think of a test that did not produce desired gains for you as a good outcome. In the future, you will not waste time and perhaps money on something that failed your test.


Learning from Failure.

We can improve our performance if we take advantage of every opportunity the learn how to do things better.

Remember there are three types of failure to consider. The immediate failure of a lift in a contest is most dramatic. Responding to this in a constructive way is hard. However, learning from this experience can benefit you in the future.

Complex or complicated failures are harder to recognize, but something that when understood can keep you from injury or subpar performance.

Finally, experiments that you run for your own purposes can tell you whether you want to continue to use something or forget it.

Lift Big,


Written by Richard

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  1. Jack Rankin

    Thanks for your efforts to publish this blog, Richard. This one in particular is a good reminder that we learn more from our losses (in my case as a lifter and trial lawyer) than we do from our successes. The trick, as the article points out, is how to learn constructively.

    • Richard

      Jack: Thanks for you observation. Too often when we make mistakes the first impulse is to cover them up or blame someone else. We can all learn from experience, if we permit experience to teach us something.