Alexandr Romankov is often remembered for his ten World Championships and five Olympic medals, and is generally considered one of the greatest fencers in history. However, what is often overlooked–and, perhaps, is far more interesting–is that Romankov’s early fencing career was unexceptional. He spent many years without any great success in the sport. He loved fencing, however, and had a coach that insisted that, with diligence and patience, Romankov would eventually excel, so he continued to train hard.
The Soviet national coaches and fencing federation were so unconvinced of Romankov’s prospects as an athlete that it was only in 1974, after his diligence and patience paid off and he had won every national competition, including the USSR National Championship, that he was finally permitted to join the national team and compete internationally. In fact, although he had already won every domestic event, he was told that anything other than first place at the Nationals would mean he would not be on the national team. One month later he won the World Championships*.
Success is often romanticized as something magical or determined by fate: a great champion who comes out of nowhere and is totally unbeatable; the boy who has never trained before but, after a little practice with a wise old master (Wax on! Wax off!), can defeat opponents who have trained for years; the poor, uneducated laborer who suddenly discovers he actually has some unknown world-class skill. These ideas can make for enjoyable stories, but they do not reflect the reality of how success is achieved.
Success is always the product of failure. In order to learn the skills necessary for success, one must first fail. No child is born knowing how to ride a bicycle. It is only after trying, falling down, and trying again, that he eventually learns. The forms and varieties that failure come in are extensive. Fencers first fail when they are introduced to the basic fencing movements–they don’t control their weapons properly nor move well on the strip. They fail during individual lessons and group exercises: hitting at the wrong time or in the wrong way, using the distance incorrectly, etc. They fail when they try to implement new ideas or new actions. They fail during bouts. They fail during competitions. Failure occurs far more frequently, in fact, than success.
Successful people are not those who do not experience failure, they are those who accept failure as part of the process of improvement.
Accelerating that process often requires one to seek out failure. There are coaches and teachers who endeavor to only provide their students with challenges that they know the students will immediately overcome. These educators believe their students should always feel successful. Similarly there are students who avoid anything that they are not certain they can manage. In fencing, this means fencers who never try anything new and coaches who never conduct exercises beyond their athletes’ current abilities.
In order to excel, we must move outside our comfort zones. We must challenge ourselves–which means we must attempt things that are beyond our abilities. The sign that something is beyond your abilities is, of course, failure.
If you are not routinely failing, it is impossible to improve. When you fail at something, keep working at it until you can fail at something new. By escaping the trap of avoiding failure and, instead, understanding its irreplaceable value, you will be able to make huge strides in your learning and progress.
And that rules most of all.
*It’s worth noting that in the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union was such a fencing powerhouse that the USSR National Fencing Championships was considered a much stronger competition than the World Championships.