Vail Daily column: What elite athletes can teach us about failure |

Vail Daily column: What elite athletes can teach us about failure

Haley Perlus
Your Inner Athlete
Kevin Jorgeson, left, and Tommy Caldwell climb El Capitan, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, as seen from the valley floor in Yosemite National Park, Calif. Caldwell and Jorgeson became the first to free-climb the rock formation's Dawn Wall. They used ropes and safety harnesses to catch them in case of a fall, but relied entirely on their own strength and dexterity to ascend by grasping cracks as thin as razor blades and as small as dimes. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

On Jan. 14, free climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the summit of the 3,000-foot rock known as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, marking the first free ascent of the most difficult section, called the Dawn Wall. The goal was to climb all 32 pitches without falling. If one climber fell while attempting a pitch, he would go back to the beginning of the pitch and try again.

Both men quickly conquered the first 14 pitches in six days. Then, over the next seven days, while Caldwell progressed nicely up six more pitches, Jorgeson got stuck on pitch No. 15. It took 11 attempts over seven days to successfully ascend it.

Just imagine being stalled on one obstacle for seven days. First, you continue to experience failure after failure. Second, you know your teammate and companion is waiting for you above because the plan is to summit together. Third, you know you’re in a time crunch because the longer you’re on the wall, the greater chance weather can force you and your teammate to descend.

For an athlete who is not mentally tough, these three factors — failing again and again, holding your teammate back and being under the clock — can create anxiety, doubt, physical tension and fatigue, and poor performance. That’s not what happened with Jorgeson. Jorgeson posted online, “as disappointing as this is, I’m learning new levels of patience, perseverance and desire. I’m not giving up. I will rest. I will try again. I will succeed.”

I can’t say for sure the specific thoughts that helped Jorgeson to stay mentally strong, but here are two sport psychology techniques that would have helped Jorgeson and can help you when you’re confronted with an obstacle in your life.

First, both Jorgeson and Caldwell talked about their dream of free climbing the Dawn Wall, something that was many years in the making. Since Jorgeson had such a strong vision of reaching the top of El Capitan, he was possibly able to see each failed attempt at pitch No. 15 as a means to fuel future improvements and create an even stronger hunger to succeed.

Staying with the concept of having a clear vision and purpose, if I could mention another elite athlete to drive this point home, celebrated big wave surfer Laird Hamilton once said, “at the end of the day, the why always tells you how you’ll act in the moment of truth.”

When you’re faced with a huge challenge, only if you have a strong, meaningful and clear vision, will you know why you’re there and, in Jorgeson’s case, literally hanging tough. Then, you’ll be able to muster up whatever energy and resources you need to fight as hard and as smart as you possibly can to conquer the challenge and make your ultimate dream of a reality.

The second sport psychology tool that could have helped Jorgeson stay committed to conquering pitch #15 and the rest of the free climb is viewing his partner Caldwell’s success as encouraging, further strengthening his perseverance. Watching other people succeed can bolster confidence, especially when you believe their abilities closely match yours. For Jorgeson, he could look up the wall, see Caldwell, and think, “if he can do it, so can I.”

Think about an obstacle you’re faced with right now. Experiment with these two sport psychology tools. Remember your vision. Why do you want to achieve your goals so badly? How will your goal improve your life? Also, look for a friend, family member, community member, or celebrated athlete who can lead by example. Let that person’s accomplishments and confidence rub off on and inspire you.

No matter how many failures you’ve already experienced, to help with your patience, desire, and perseverance, remember Jorgeson on pitch #15 of the Dawn Wall. Draw the connection between him and yourself and conquer your obstacle with every once of energy you have to give!

With a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology, Haley Perlus is an expert at empowering athletes to achieve peak results. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, an international speaker, a former alpine ski racer, an appointed industry leader for and author. For more information and free chapters of her soon-to-be-released books, visit her website,

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