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Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


AUGUST 6, 2012 4:52PM

The Power of Disappointment

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Watching the Summer Olympics, I’m enthralled by displays of incredible speed and endurance, by the gorgeous physicality. But the stories that really hook me are those of this summer’s losers.

Take U.S. gymnast McKayla Maroney’s failure to win a gold medal on the vault. She was the odds-on favorite, the one NBC’s announcers kept drumming up as “state of the art.” Apparently, she couldn’t lose this past Sunday—except that she did. On her second vault, Maroney fell smack on her bottom when she landed, only snagging a silver medal.

The frozen look on her face was sad. But I was far more disheartened by the immediate TV response: the camera focused on her shocked expression, NBC commentators gasping, saying it was unbelievable, as if the collective fascination with gymnastics were not all about the constant potential for mistakes and such possibilities for public failure. We love mistakes by others; we revel in them—and then we feel guilty.

No doubt coaches and teammates and family members did and will continue to bolster Maroney. Off stage, I’m sure she received hugs and encouragement, as well as plenty of advice to “shake it off.”

But disappointment is not just about suffering. In this case, it’s not a tragedy, and it doesn’t have to be treated as such on primetime TV.

“You can’t be perfect, and sometimes things don’t go as planned,” Maroney herself later told the press. "I can't blame it on anything except I screwed up." If only the NBC commentators at the event had provided such perspective.

As Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports noted of Maroney’s “true grit” at the press conference following her error: “She just stood right there and kept answering questions, kept dealing with her disappointment.”

Mastering disappointment is one of the most basic of life skills. It may be the basic skill, because we all face disappointing moments in our lives. At times, we disappoint ourselves. We may disappoint others, and those we love will surely disappoint us. When an Olympic athlete faces down his or fears, it can be a metaphor for the personal extremities we all confront—job loss, divorce, illness, natural disasters—as well as the small stuff.

Today I’m disappointed in myself for missing a deadline. I’m disappointed in the way I recently handled a fight with a friend. And I'm continually hard on myself for not spending more time with my ailing parents. I can cite excuses or mitigating circumstances; but usually it’s about living with the fact that I’ve “screwed up” or that I never was in control of the outcome.

Yet high-profile competitions like the Olympics send out mixed messages about what it means to deal with disappointment. When an athlete loses in one Olympics, then comes back to do it again—and wins gold!—the basic narrative is that of redemption. This makes for a good story in the moment. But the real challenge is for those who keep coming back and placing fifth or tenth or thirty-sixth—for those who believe the effort, like life, is what matters.

Much as we hear mantras about trying hard and “it’s how you play the game,” we all know that winning is what gets the applause, the medals, the TV coverage, the lucrative corporate sponsorships.

Meanwhile, contemporary parents focus on winning, too, whether it’s the athletic or academic sweepstakes. As my own preteen son watches Gabby Douglas or the U.S. women’s volleyball team beat Turkey, I want to keep telling him that winning big is just one moment in a whole life of moments.

I must admit there are times I’ve wished failure on winners like swimmer Michael Phelps or beach volleyball players Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. It’s not that I believe suffering is good for the soul. It’s that I’d like to see somebody like Phelps rise to the occasion when he’s disappointed so that this is the sound bite we remember.

The Olympics does provide glimpses of failure in the raw, even amid NBC’s edited primetime coverage. That’s what keeps me coming back. And Maroney’s response before a bank of reporters— “I have just trained so hard and on this day it didn't matter”—will stay with me far longer than if she’d stuck that vault.



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Any sport that demands perfection, such as Gymnastics, sets the participant up for disappointment. Learning how to effectively cope with the inevitable disappointment is just as important as being taught a championship dismount or tumbling routine.
Thanks, littlewillie. It is a setup for disappointment, and I'm pretty sure that the top athletes know that and wrestle with disappointment every day. I'd just wish coping with disappointment was emphasized as much as getting straight A's or winning the race.
The strangest thing about the Olympics and disappointment to me is the fact that if Michael Phelps didn't win a gold medal for a race, he was a failure. That was awful. You say that you wished he would have experienced failure, but from the expression on his face before most of the races I saw, he looked so tense and under pressure. I think he did experience the disappointment of others. I'm actually relieved he doesn't have to compete in the Olympics anymore.
I was disturbed at the media behavior toward Jordyn Wieber when she failed to advance to the All-Around...Of course she would be overwhelmed by just missing such a chance -- I found it appalling that the press made a big deal out of it, detracting the deserved attention from teammate Aly Raisman's amazing win and forcing Jordyn into the position of "explaining" herself and her support of her team. What a mess they made of a perfectly innocent situation. Not everything should be a celebrity sound byte -- especially when it involves the physical and emotional stresses of an event the caliber of the Olympics... It used to be WOMEN'S gymnastics after all...and now we have made it so physically damning to a woman's physiology only children and teens can survive it. We really ought to be ashamed of ourselves for expecting that kind of emotional restraint in a group of young girls -- and then revelling in the misery.
Alysa: You're so right that Michael Phelps seemed miserable during much of the competition, and the expectations that he should always win gold are ridiculous. Yes, I'm sure he's had to shoulder plenty of disappointment. I should amend my statement: I wish that the press and his fans would acknowledge that everyone loses sometimes, and that it's not a great tragedy when they do.

KC: Very good point about Olympic women's gymnastics basically now reserved for teenagers. The pressure on them is fierce. You're right that expecting to kids to shake off failure in public are simply unfair. And yes, the Jordyn Wieber coverage when she didn't get her all-around spot was awful. It seemed to revel in her misery without lauding those who did make it.
There are life lessons from the Olympics always; you write well of disappointment and failure. I wish there was more to read!
Nice piece to get us thinking. I imagine most quality athletes look back on their careers knowing all too well that what formed them was not Gold medals, championships, or big contracts, but struggle, hardwork, and attempting to overcome setbacks. Those we should feel sorry for are the ones who forgot they did their sport because they loved it. The rewards of success are always short-lived and ephemeral. It was interesting to see the surprise on Alyson Felix's face once she won the 200 meter sprint. In one very quick 30-second time frame she'd gone from striving harder than she'd ever strived (for years!) to succeeding...and now having to live her life for real. Good