Failure is a dirty word, but should be embraced. Much more is learned from failure of systems than from success. The key to a success is, in my humble opinion, choosing when and where that failure can happen: Preferably not on the day of a big swim (­Failure), but in training, when failure should be embraced as part of a learning culture.

In medicine, Quality Improvement is the new ‘buzzword’ in improvement methodology – learning from success and failure in multiple small steps to improve the overall picture and outcome. These cycles are things we do every day – trialling a new pair of goggles, using earplugs, a new feed, tweaking a stroke, and on and on ad infinitum. This should be a conscious process.

PDSA cycles:


The key to this is that these mini successes and failures should take place in training – not on the big day. Team Sky and Great Britain Cycling team’s Dave Brailsford coined the term ‘marginal gains’ for their programme of optimising multiple small parts of a process in order to improve the final outcome to a greater order of magnitude. I would argue that in Open Water swimming we are often looking for Success rather than a specific time, therefore I have coined the phrase ‘Marginal blames’ – if we minimise these in training we optimise the overall chance of Success. We may not know what these potentials for error or failure are until encountered (and hopefully overcome) in training – highlighting Latent errors that may not be immediately obvious.

The Swiss cheese model is often over hyped, but a reverse model aiming to navigate the holes may be useful to imagine in this situation. Success is much more likely only if we have assessed and tried to minimise the risks in the way.

minimising-failure-and-learning-from-mistakes swiss cheese model

(Swiss cheese Model, from Wikipedia)

The model I like to use (and imagine as the 5 pieces of cheese) is the only one I can remember: Coined the SHEEP model.

minimising-failure-and-learning-from-mistakes sheep

minimising-failure-and-learning-from-mistakes table

This is clearly mostly about the physical side of things. The mental side is a whole other ball park. Dealing with those dark moments is key. Building up mental and emotional resilience will help a swimmer complete even the darkest of swims.

Sometimes the issues that cause failure may be out of your control, such as mechanical failure, weather, tides etc. These should be minimised though. Have back-up plans where possible. Fail to prepare; prepare to fail. No 2 swims are identical, if there is no obvious reason for the failure, then accept that and move on. We live in an imperfect World and need to live with, and deal with, uncertainty at times.

In summary, train as you mean to fight, ie as close to the real swim as possible. Make mistakes in training and learn from them. Don’t try new things on the big day. Learn from Failure.

Further reading /bibliography:

‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed

Human Factors in Healthcare by Debbie Rosenorn-Lang, OUP

Thanks to Emma France from the Dover Channel Training Crew for reading and providing her comments