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  • Writer's pictureGlenn Cohen

Ko Phangan Challenge- How to deal with failure

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

Six a.m. on the Thai island of Ko Phangan. Most people here get up at their leisure around 10 o'clock, so why am I awake? Because I'm stressed out by a question that's been nagging me- will I be able to regain my lost honor from the Ko Phangan challenge?

Most tourists visit the island to relax or party by full moon. The adrenaline seekers will find a place by the name of Ko Phangan Challenge

which is the Thai version of "Wipe Out". The site is built on a lake and consists of a ten station obstacle course which demands a combination of balance, strength, agility and swimming skills. Seth, the manager, greeted us with a huge smile and gave a detailed briefing regarding the obstacle course. The most difficult obstacle comprises of three huge red rubber balls called "The Bombillas", which you must traverse without falling between them. In an average week, only two people succeed. Those who run the course while timed by stopwatch, have a chance at being listed in the top ten spots on the wall of fame. If one also succeeds in traversing the bombillas, one also receives the coveted prize of a Ko Phangan Challenge tee shirt.

I anxiously and proudly watched my children as they displayed athleticism and tenacity. After many attempts, they even succeeded to traverse the bombillas, and were listed in the top spots in the children's categories and received their tee shirts. It was then my turn to show how the Ironman copes with the obstacles on a practice run. I succeeded with surprising ease to overcome most of them, until the red bombillas. I crashed and burned there, and despite numerous attempts, nothing helped. The children were very sweet and tried teaching me the leapfrog technique, and reminded me of the importance of perseverance and determination which I always preach to them. During the lunch break, the disappointment in the air was so thick that one could cut it with a knife. We all had a fantasy that sporty daddy would come along and ace the course, including the bombillas. I let go of this fantasy, and hoped to be able to run the obstacle course by timer and be listed on the wall. I climbed the 15 foot tower and held on tight to the omega shaped bar. Seth whistled and yelled to everyone to clear the way for the racer on the course. 3,2,1, Go! I jump from the tower and let go of the bar over the water, swim to the first obstacle, run along a four inch wide beam while pushing aside the huge swinging punching bags, jump from the beam to a series of five hanging ropes, dive from them to the water and climb onto an obstacle with three revolving barrels, slip and almost crash, but manage to dive and swim to a floating mattress from which I attempt to run between 20X20 inch floating mats, and swim 20 yards to the inflatable 30 foot high "mountain" which needs to be climbed. At this stage, I was so fatigued from the morning practice runs and did not have the strength needed in my arms to pull myself out of the water and up the mountain. Everyone is looking at the "athlete" who got stuck even before the bombillas. Maya was very sweet and swam nearby to encourage me. She whispers to me, "Determination dad, determination!" I raise my hand out of the water and reach for the handle to hoist myself up, hoping that my daughters words will fill me with strength. No such luck- my strength is sapped, and the handle slips out of my hand, together with fantasy number two. I will be leaving with no shirt and no name on the wall. I've failed.

The children console me on the way home, "it's okay dad, don't worry." Despite the disappointment, it seems that the children were coping well with my failure.

The young champs

What about me? It’s a work in progress. Small as well as big events are an opportunity for insight and growth. I am purposefully writing this piece before today's attempt in order to connect to the sense of failure and see how it feels. If I succeed today, even without the bombillas, I will feel that this is good enough to save face. But what if I don't? What will I feel and how will I cope? On the one hand, it's clear to me that I'll eventually get over a failure at the Ko Phangan Challenge, but on the other hand, I'm surprised how much energy I'm exerting on this silly water obstacle. Thoughts, feelings, and many written words. I believe that if I fail again today, I'll turn it into a learning experience which I can build on, even if it will bruise my ego somewhat. One way or another, I will offer my advice as well as coping techniques. Stay tuned…

I'm back. What a day. I started with an easy warm up run of the obstacles, before going for the stopwatch. Oh no! I feel my rotator cuff tear as I try to hug the first huge red ball. I can barely raise my hand above my head, how will I manage to complete the course without feeling completely humiliated? I procrastinated as much as I could but luckily Maya insisted, and physically pushed me towards the starting tower. I managed to complete the entire course in a time of 4 minutes and 10 seconds. The course record is one minute and 10 seconds, so as you can imagine, it wasn't pretty. I crashed a few times, but I didn't give up even though I had to swim with one hand. I didn't succeed on the bombillas, but that's fine. My time gained me second place on the wall, in the over 40 category, and I was crowned as the oldest geezer to have completed the Ko Phangan Challenge. At the end of the day, I had saved face.

After the children dubbed our results "a respectable family achievement", I understood that the family's pride was at stake, and not just my personal honor. Thoughts of how our family and children perceive us can be a very powerful motivator. In the movie "Everest" which we saw on the ferry to Ko Phangan, the climbers are asked why they push themselves to the highest and most dangerous peak in the world. One of them states that he is doing it for his children. He eventually pushed too hard, which led to a tragic end. We recently met a young traveler who told us about his mother's amazing weight loss. She weighed 240 pounds until one day when her son did not allow her to attend a school assembly because he was ashamed of her. She went on to lose 130 pounds, and now is fit as a fiddle, thanks to her son and his shame. It doesn't matter if it's the highest peak in the world or a silly bombilla, the motivation towards success and the principles of coping with failure are the same.

In any event, the sense of failure is subjective. For good or for bad, it’s all in the mind. What will determine if it's good or bad depends on the quality of our coping skills and defense mechanisms.

Recommended techniques to cope with failure:

*Reframing: This is the name of a cognitive coping mechanism which enables us to "frame" a certain situation in a different way and see it in a positive light. For example, seeing failure as an opportunity for growth. Michael Jordan demonstrates the art of reframing with his quote: "I missed 9000 shots, lost 300 games and failed again and again. That's why I succeed."

*Hierarchy of goals: For example, main goal- sub 3 hour marathon, secondary goal- finishing without injury. Thus we create more room to maneuver and enable ourselves to experience success.

*Focus on Achievement, not Competitiveness: An achiever wants to run a marathon, maybe even at a certain time. A competitor wants to finish the marathon with a certain ranking compared to others. Competitiveness can be a double edged sword especially if we are busy comparing ourselves to others instead of focusing inwards and striving to achieve our full potential.

*Rationalization: This is a common defense mechanism but not the most adaptive. Saying at the end of a race, "it wasn't important to me anyway", may temporarily help avoid the sense of failure, but does not help us succeed next time.

*Tenacity: Like they taught us in the kindergarten song- If at first you don't succeed, try try again. It doesn't matter if it's returning to the obstacle course or running the next marathon, it takes tenacity to overcome the natural tendency to avoid situations which remind us of failure.

*Clint Eastwood said: " A man's got to know his limitations". This helps us be tenacious without being stupid. The problem is that it's not always simple to know exactly what our limitations are. From my experience, most people tend to underestimate their capabilities.

*Integration- I suggest a blend between Clint Eastwood and Ron Pecker, a legendary Israeli Air Force pilot who wrote a book called "The sky is not the limit". The two quotes seem juxtaposed, and therefore a complex blend, but they enable us to strive very high, while not forgetting our limitations.

I wish us all to keep on shooting for the stars, while not fearing failure, and realizing that we are capable of much more than we imagined.

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