The Power of Disappointment

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.

McKayla Maroney

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.

“Mastering disappointment is one of the most basic of life skills”

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.


Quotes in this piece are from:

McKayla Maroney’s photo is in the public domain (Wikipedia).


3 thoughts on “The Power of Disappointment

  1. Martha,
    This piece really resonates with me. I also don’t quite understand why some competitors are crushed when they have to “settle” for a silver or bronze medal. It’s the olympics, for pete’s sake, it’s a privilege just to be there.

    Yes, these athletes and others work hard for years, but that often isn’t enough to get the acknowledgement we all crave (as writers well know!).

    Life often doesn’t go as planned, I love the way you point out that handling that with grace —and the resilience to keep coming back— is as important as winning.

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