The Fuel of Failure
Vol 24: What I learned from collegiate athletics
April is awesome. It’s easily one of my favorite months — in part because it is the real start to spring, but also because it’s a month full of great memories. And almost all of them revolve around one thing.
I haven’t written too much about my experience with lacrosse, partially because I’m not an athlete anymore, but mainly because I’m interested in other things now.
But while I haven’t written much publicly, I’ve certainly thought a great deal about it. Because I devoted 15 years of my life to it, and the memories, friendships, and things I learned will stay with me for the rest of my time here.
It’s not easy to write about this for a number of reasons. It’s hard to condense 15 years of friendships down to a few paragraphs, and candidly I’m not sure people who read Embers would be interested in reading my recantations about The Good Ole Days.
The good news is that isn’t really the case though: my 15 years with lacrosse are replete with good, great, and amazing days — but I have had plenty of those post college as well. I thoroughly enjoy being here, and I always found it silly and sad that people can be so content to hang their hats on old experiences. By all means reminisce, but also spend time making new ones.
I like to think that I am able to learn from successes, whether from film, feedback, etc. But I now know why failure is the ultimate teacher. Because there’s nothing else to lean against after a loss.
As I said, lacrosse was replete with amazing days, but it’s also responsible for some of the darkest days I’ve dealt with, which are what this piece is really about.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m a very goal oriented individual. It’s how I’m wired (or perhaps lacrosse made me that way).
Either way, I had a clear goal in middle school and high school, which dictated almost every decision I made: I wanted to play lacrosse in college.
I accomplished that, and then I established goals for college. Pretty audacious ones too.
I didn’t accomplish any of them. I didn’t even score a goal or get an assist.
A lot of people close to me tell me that injuries and bad luck are out of your control, but the most gnawing aspect is that I know I could have done better. Perhaps I could’ve recovered more to prevent an injury, or maybe done a bit more wall ball practice. There are almost endless ways I could’ve approached it differently, but realistically the most important thing I lacked was mental fortitude.
I haven’t spoken to many people about this, not because I’m dejected of not having any points (I am, but I don’t really care about that anymore) — I haven’t shared it because I’m embarrassed of what it showed me about myself.
I saw firsthand how weak I was, how unconfident I was, and how vulnerable I was.
Everything I thought I was, wasn’t really the case. And it’s horribly humiliating to see yourself reach a point where you can’t really recognize who you are or what you’re doing (or failing to do).
I don’t want you to read this post and feel sorry for me, nor do I want you to read this and feel that I’m bemoaning how my college lacrosse career didn’t pan out.
I’m writing this because for better or for worse, this was arguably the biggest failure of my life, and it stretched on for four years. It’s completely changed me, and that’s why I’m writing about it. To share what I’ve learned.
Moneyball & Mental Mind Games
One of the most salient parts of Moneyball was reading how Billy Beane struggled in the pros because he thought too much. His brain was moving so fast and processing so much that he couldn’t just act and react.
People like to make fun of athletes for being unintelligent, but there’s an element of genius to being able to turn off your brain when you’re on the field. To just play the game.
I’ve gotten to that point at times, and when you do it’s pretty magical. It’s part of being in the flow that you either read about or are lucky enough to experience yourself. I’ll likely talk about Impulsively Acting on Impetuses in a future post because it’s so fascinating to see what your body does when your brain isn’t “on”.
But I didn’t really do that in college. In fact, it was pretty rare.
It was all thinking — over thinking — that unraveled me. A mix of coaches’ directions, teammates’ chatter and actions, and of course the opponents’ reactions, that all led to my mind overclocking.
I heard everything, all at once, and was trying to act on it all, at the same time.
It was disastrous. Some days I couldn’t even throw and catch. Which is pretty ironic because it was always one of my strengths.
My mind was all over the place, partially racing ahead to all the things I needed to do once I got the ball, and it was also thinking about all the other instructions, frustrations, or situations that were thrown my way.
Mentally, I couldn’t juggle them all, and the end result was that I frequently played so bad that the high school version of me would’ve been significantly better.
Everyone was frustrated. My teammates would (rightfully) get annoyed at my incompetence. My coaches were at times apoplectic. And then there was me — who was completely confounded and equally parts feeble and furious.
Perhaps the most sobering example I have was the fall of my junior year, because I was going through an especially bad bout of disarray, and that fall we had a new coach join our team — one that I had played with and against all through middle school and high school.
One of the best games I ever played, one where I was almost entirely acting and reacting (and not thinking), was against his team in the championship game my junior year of high school. Four years after that win, he now saw me struggling to throw and catch, and I was being berated accordingly.
I will always remember what he did. He walked up to me one day after I was just eviscerated, pulled me aside, and looked at my shellshocked face and asked me if I remembered a certain day in April 2014 — when a certain player on the opposing team kicked his ass.
I ended up scoring a goal to end practice the very next rep after our chat; I appreciate him immensely because he helped me get back on track. But unfortunately there is no magic bullet, and even after he helped me, I still saw outbursts of unraveling.
The key word from that story above isn’t “scoring” — it’s “shellshocked”.
This is why my four years were so enraging at times. I quite literally became a mental shell of myself. I crumbled and wilted. And it wasn’t just for a few plays, days, or weeks. This lasted four years.
Which is one of the primary reasons I wish I had gotten mental coaching, because when these outbursts happened it was like balancing on a knife’s edge. Sometimes I’d right the ship, and other times I’d mentally spiral into the abyss. I oscillated so much from barely being able to play to actually contributing and making plays in practice, scrimmages, etc.
That’s why I can’t chalk up my personal failures to a lack of effort or a lack of practice — I certainly could’ve done more, but I spent countless school nights playing wall ball well past midnight. No one else saw that, and while it may have changed how some of my coaches or teammates thought about my on-the-field woes, their thoughts and reactions were outside of my control.
Not that it mattered, because the biggest reason I failed was that I couldn’t Control the Controllables: I couldn’t control my mind. Which is a tormenting thing to recognize.
Learning Who You (Actually) Are
I’m acutely aware this doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme, especially when compared against other’s misfortunes. But it mattered to me — significantly so. Lacrosse was what I oriented my life around, almost all my decisions from middle school through college were informed by this goal. So when it all started to crumble away, it was only natural to feel lost.
I’ve since had other failures, some far more pronounced than a collegiate lacrosse performance. But I think what makes this so poignant is that this was a sustained mental dismantling. And I can’t easily explain what it did to me or what it felt like.
It was in a word, terribly tormenting. And I knew that I was the only one that could solve it.
As someone who takes pride in their ability to solve problems, the first thing you need to do is recognize what needs solving. My coaches and teammates thought I needed more wall ball, but what I really needed was 1) more sleep, and 2) a complete mental rewiring.
I needed to Become a Mental Architect, extirpate my existing mental framework and rebuild all my foundations from scratch. That takes a lot of time, especially when you’re doing it all by yourself.
One of the (perhaps maddeningly) beautiful things about sports is that it shows you who you really are. You face waves of adversity, and these waves erode your exterior until you lie completely bare. And then a mirror is held up and you have to look at what’s left.
I barely recognized my reflection.
Confidence is crucial for success in life. I’ve been blessed to have parents that instilled that in me from a young age, but as I’m sure everyone has felt at some point in their life, I had an unexpected erosion that started freshman winter when I had mono, didn’t know it, and felt a lethargy that I had never experienced before. I was delirious, and I played like it.
That led to the first wave of unraveling which cascaded into four years of frustrations. The details aren’t worth going into, but at a high level, I realized that once my confidence evaporated, my mind started racing uncontrollably in practice, and all my other athletic inclinations went away as well.
I’ve always been hyper competitive, but suddenly my competitiveness came and went. I became fearful of failing, and that fear only further manifested more failure.
I had many discussions with my coaches throughout college about what was happening. Sometimes they were supportive, other times they were upset, and probably pretty irate. It was hard to get out of this tailspin, and the interesting thing is that I never really got out of it. But that tailspin wasn’t a problem by the time I graduated, because I had successfully saved my mind by doing something counterintuitive — I stopped thinking about me.
New Goals & Outcomes
In the second half of my college career, I decided I didn’t care about my personal goals anymore. I figured it didn’t matter if I didn’t achieve them, because I hadn’t so far and it wasn’t the end of the world.
Instead I shifted to helping my teammates by doing what I could as an upperclassman. I kept doing all the extra work and wall ball, but I did it while telling myself it wouldn’t solve my problems, but it may help my team’s.
When I write that out, it sounds nihilistic. That’s not the right characterization though — I gave up on my personal goals, but I never gave up on the team’s.
Giving up isn’t advice you often hear, but in this case I needed to let go and do a clean reset. I’d be lying if deep down I still held out hope for reaching some of my aspirations on the field. But I decided to fully focus on the team, and that meant being selfless for the sake of the squad.
I ignored “me” and focused solely on “we”.
Gradually, my mental state of mind improved. There were still plenty of scars leftover, but overall I played much better on the field.
Not everything has a happy ending, which is okay. That was the case for my personal college aspirations, but taken in a different frame of mind, my four years were quite successful, in all sorts of ways.
Some of problems I faced also faded away once I graduated because my physical abilities were no longer being judged and evaluated every day. I still judge myself on physical abilities, but my career is much more focused on mental performance.
Failure is only failure if you don’t learn from it, and I learned to change how I viewed myself in order to improve my mental state.
I’ll probably talk about other lessons I learned from my last two years of college in a separate post, but for the purpose of this piece it’s important to know that I ended my lacrosse career in a better mental state, but it wasn’t fully solved.
The most important thing I learned from this failure is that the story you tell yourself about yourself dictates where you go in life. My story in college wasn’t very compelling. Academically I did great, athletically I fell apart. Which is interesting because my coaches and teammates probably thought I put more time into academics, but I’m pretty confident the opposite is true. Which taught me that sometimes the answer to your problems isn’t more work, it’s resting and making sure mentally you’re where you need to be. And in this case, it was mental self talk.
I’ve documented my process of making a new story for myself, but I haven’t done a great job of showing how much time went into it. It took years to successfully do it, but I’ve built the new life I want to have, and now I’m starting to Put the Puzzle Together.
I saw this tweet today and it captures the lesson I’m talking about:
No point wasting time being mad about how I was treated. Took me a while to realize that. All being mad did was put me in a negative frame of mind, and successful people don’t enjoy being around people who are mad about something that happened in the past. — Radigan Carter
It’s a great short thread; he talks about Controlling the Controllables, and owning your own path forward in life no matter which cards are dealt.
Radigan's life path is utterly different than my own, but I appreciate that I can listen and learn from him. We live in a golden age of being able to learn from each other, and hopefully this helps you in some way as you go on your path.
I’m parsing through every word in here because I don’t want to leave the wrong message or impression. So if I were to summarize this whole piece, I’d go with this:
I mentally unraveled on the lacrosse field. After multiple years of struggling against it, I just let it all go, and focused instead on what I could control. I made sure I enjoyed my limited time left on a team, and accepted that whatever would happen, would happen. I (re)learned how to enjoy the journey to the destination, as opposed to waiting until I got there. Because I realized there’s no guarantee you’ll end up where you think or want to go. You must trust your ability to adjust your balance as you move forward.
And once I did this, all those other problems started to solve themselves. It took daily diligence, but the road got a lot smoother. And that road has taken me to lots of new places. And I’m just getting started.
A Swan Song
You know it’s pretty bittersweet writing this. Lacrosse was so much fun. I absolutely loved everything about it, from the physicality and tactically, to seemingly innocuous things like making and stringing your own stick.
There are a few reasons why I’m writing this now. I’ve seen a lot more of my teammates this year, now that COVID is starting to subside. I also went to my first BU lacrosse game as a spectator since high school, which was pretty strange to be completely honest. But that game was also special because my youngest brother was on the opposing team. He learned a lot from my personal experiences, and now he’s learning his own lessons from playing in college. Hopefully this piece helps him and others that are or have gone through collegiate athletics. As you can see, it’s not very easy.
So in a sense this is my swan song to the sport I loved, and continue to love as time extends from school. I may not have achieved what I wanted in college, but I did achieve my overarching goal from middle school and high school. So few people play sports in college, and I’m incredibly grateful I got to do that, and do it at a place where I could have an impact on a young program. A program that just won its first regular season Patriot League title!
When I look back now on all my years playing, so much goes through my mind. Ranging from Big Feelings, highs and lows with best friends, to thinking about how I’d approach different things differently. Even high school losses sit in my mind. They don’t haunt me by any means, but they’re there, and I think it’s a useful way to 1) continue reflecting, learning, and improving, and 2) know that you have to do things with the utmost intensity, because you only get one shot at anything. In college I was guaranteed X number of practices and Y number of games a year, and now those guarantees are gone.
There’s only one guarantee left (death), and I’m marching towards it with everything I’ve learned from 15 years of a sport that changed my life entirely.
Moments that Matter
One of my favorite books on culture, The Power of Moments, talks about how seemingly simple things like a goodbye are really important for us, especially when we are going through Big Transitions.
One of the frustrating aspects of spring sports it how unceremoniously it all ends. Your season stops, and next thing you know your teammates are studying for finals while seniors get ready for graduation. Not being able to have an official ending, as silly as it may sound, is a serious problem, because your mind and body don’t think it’s over.
And then suddenly you realize it.
It’s hard going from being in a locker room every day to suddenly being largely alone. So many former athletes I’ve talked to discuss how hard these transitions are, and I get that there aren’t great ways to solve this, but it makes me wish as a country we had more things to fill this void. Because we all miss it.
I never got to formally say goodbye to most of my teammates, coaches, and the sport. I tried my best, but this is something I’ve always thought about as years have passed.
So this is my goodbye, even if it’s three years late. Better to do it now than wait, I figure. Plus, I’ve fully moved on to new pursuits, as I said — these memories and learnings will always be with me, and I continue to reflect and introspect upon them, but my mind is very much focused on the future, because that’s where life is. You can think about the past all you want, but that’s antithetical to how life works. You have to look and move forward.
It’s funny, because every year of my life up until recently has been indexed by what lacrosse was like. It wasn’t junior year of high school, but junior season of lacrosse. I guess that’s what happens when your passionate about something.
Sports are a microcosm of life. You can plan ahead all you want, but once the game starts everything changes.
You inevitably fail at some point. But don’t get back up right away when you fall down, otherwise you’ll end up on the ground again. You have to learn and become different.
On top of what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed, I have the added benefit of an absurd amount of internal motivation from what I went through. Proving people wrong is a powerful form of fuel. So I’m thankful for those that doubted (and continue to doubt) me. I doubt they’re reading this, but if they are, thank you.
I’m incredibly grateful I failed this significantly, because I know I became better from it. And now I have much bigger aspirations than scoring goals.
You can’t always accomplish what you want. And that’s okay, but now I know what I need to do to give myself the best chance possible.
I now have two questions I always ask before I set out to accomplish anything:
What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail?
Is this still worth doing even if I fail doing it?
The first expands your mind, and the second sharpens it to focus on things that still matter.
In that vein, college lacrosse was absolutely worth it. People often ask me what I obtained from college lacrosse — most of the time I tell them about the friendships, the 200+ different people whom I can always reach out to. Or perhaps I tell them about seemingly ungodly time management skills, or now knowing how to push past physical limitations of my body. There are so many great things I got from lacrosse that I will never question my decision to do it.
But the real answer is a simple one: I’m unbreakable now. I went through the ringer and made it out better because of it. To use the Astronaut term — I went into the shaker room and came out stronger. Or to use Nassim Taleb’s example: I’m anti-fragile.
College was humbling, gratifying, disheartening, electrifying, tormenting, and mesmerizing. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
I’m unbreakable now, because I’ve been dismantled before, and now I know how to put myself back together.
I got so close to achieving my goals in college, but I ended up not getting any of them. I was so close to success, and I know I will never let that happen again.
A few photos from the past 15 years
Thank you to all my friends, coaches, and family for the best 15 years. Can’t wait for what’s next. — #24, 11, & 9
Centering your mental calendar around your sport is all too true. Like how students often recall new year beginning in September rather than January.
It is a humbling, sometimes dulling, and generally confusing transition to see life as “winter, spring, summer, fall” rather than “pre-season, in-season, post-season, off-season”.
Wow, it's amazingly vulnerable of you to write this down. At the same time, it's a huge testament to your personal growth that you've been mentally dismantled and put back together. The difference in working with people on different sides of that phase transition is like night and day.