Lately, parenting experts are warning against hollow cheerleading. Excessive empty praise makes children anxious and risk-averse, and unable to cope when things don’t go their way. The solution, argues Dan Griffin in Slate, is to teach parents and children “to succeed a little less and fail a lot more in the service of a greater goal, developing character.” Griffin, a clinical psychologist, says the hardest part of his job is convincing the parents to sit back and watch the train wrecks, and to trust that, ultimately, their child won’t fall apart.
If that’s true, Griffin’s best role model may be figure skater Gracie Gold. According to the New York Times, Gold was saved by learning to fail.
As a teenager, Gold was the stereotype of a perfectionist figure skater. But at some point she became spooked by the fear that she wouldn’t make it to the Olympics. She’d make a mistake at practice, and fall apart. Then, last year, she turned it around.
Her secret? Gold’s new coach Frank Carroll convinced her that failure was nothing to be afraid of—that, in fact, it was something to embrace. When Gracie fretted to him that she might not make it to the Olympics, he would calmly tell her that he hadn’t made it to the Olympics and he’d still lived a good life.
Carroll convinced her that her perfectionism was getting in the way, and that letting in the prospect of failure would in fact let her succeed. “It’s not the perfect skater that wins, it’s the best skater,” he told her. Gold began to relax. Reporters started to describe her as confident, and she’s now able to show off a playful side. (On The Tonight Show, she juggled lemons.)
Can the Olympics really incorporate this narrative? Isn’t women’s figure skating the event, above others, that’s all about winning? Sure, but not necessarily if you’re an American. Americans have a long love affair with failing, especially lately, argues Liza Mundy in the Atlantic piece “Losing Is the New Winning.” Lately, politicians love to portray themselves as losers who’ve overcome their enormous failings. And now, perhaps, so do athletes. If Gold’s looking for permanent inspiration, she could copy the tattoo that Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka has inscribed on his left forearm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.”