Jonny Wilkinson and me – a study in failure

I was interested to see Jill Berry praising Simon Postle’s piece in last week’s TES in which he made the point that when face with Poor results, we should “Take the lessons learned, improve practice & move forward to the next challenge.”

It put me in mind of a brilliant innovation in the boarding house of a colleague – the ‘Wall of Failure’ on which pupils and staff are encouraged to own up to past failures and comment on how it has led them to success later on. I think it’s brilliant role-modelling of humility and growth mindset.

It also reminded me of a talk I wrote for an assembly once but which I never actually delivered, which I offer to you below.

A Tale of Two Sportsmen

Have you ever tried and failed? Never matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. [Samuel Beckett]

This is a story about two young men I knew at school. They were both bright, sporty, ambitious, pretty popular and with supportive families. There was one difference though. Let me explain: The first chap was extremely ambitious and driven and would do all it took to prepare himself for the rugby career that he always wanted. His logic was that if a chance presented itself, he would be ready to grasp it with both hands. At lunchtimes, he would head down to the pitches and do shuttle runs for half an hour. After team sessions he would kick goals, and always aimed to kick six in a row before finishing. After school he would head to the gym, and weekends were for sport only – match day and then recovery.

The other chap had a different view of things. A naturally talented cricketer, he did what all the other players did – turned up to training, did his best and then went home. Occasionally he would do a bit extra with his mates but mostly he would head home to do his homework and then relax with mates or watch tv. Weekends were for matches and then chilling, and in later years, maybe some beers with his team mates. That was the done thing. The first bloke didn’t touch a drop, and if he did come and socialise, he would ensure he was home in time for sleep and recovery – always looking after himself. The second guy reasoned that if he was picked up by a professional team, the coaches would give him a training plan and monitor his progress: until then it was a matter of impressing on the pitch and his talent would be enough.

Image result for jonny wilkinson

Proper hero, this bloke (and not bad at French either!)

In the upper 6th form, a new rugby coach joined the school and he was confronted with a young fly half who possessed a professional attitude and approach to the game and himself – 12 months later, Jonny Wilkinson signed for Newcastle Falcons and within 12 months he had made his England debut – he never looked back. I’m sure you have worked out who the other fellow was by now, and when I did eventually get asked to come on trial with Worcestershire, I was far from ready. I was in fact 2 stone overweight from enjoying life at university, my bat was held together with tape and I had to borrow my dad’s boots. Although I may have played ok, I am sure I looked far from the part and I am not surprised they chose not to sign me full time.

Benjamin Franklin said that ‘one of the secrets to success is being ready for your chance when it comes’ and mine and Jonny’s stories exemplify this: not only was he ready for professional rugby- he actually laid the template for what a professional looked like. He made it happen.

I waited for someone else to make it happen for me, and the chance passed me by.

There is more to this story: Jonny’s success was coupled with a crippling anxiety – allegedly he could not bring himself to watch the famous World Cup final as he knew he’d see mistakes he’d made, and he spent much of the second half of his career coming to terms with himself as a person and accepting failure. Even he probably doesn’t know that although I eventually gained a place to read Modern Languages at Oxford, I can remember looking over his answers in A-level French (sorry, Mr Wightman!)

So for me, whilst I do bitterly regret not making the most of my ability and never giving myself the best shot of playing professionally –  let alone for my country –  I have since committed myself to being the best I can be as a teacher. We all make mistakes, bad calls, errors of judgement – to err is human – the hardest skill is to be kind to yourself. Accept your limitations, learn from them and grow stronger. One of Jonny’s great sporting heroes at school was Michael Jordan (of course, Jonny was brilliant at that sport as well…), who famously scored the most NBA goals, but reminded everyone that he also missed the most!

Do all you can to commit to your dream and be ready when the chance comes. And if you come up short, no matter. Fail again. Fail better.


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