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Sometimes losing is the best thing that can happen

They say that quitters never win and winners never quit. That might be true, but sometimes losing is the best thing that can happen to a competitor. Just ask Andy Murray.

Last year at the Wimbledon final of 2012 he lost to Roger Federer in four sets. And that was a pivotal moment for him. You could see how disappointed he was. But sometimes in those moments, you gain more from losing than winning. Because you build a deep inner strength.

Just a few weeks later at the London Olympics Murray was in the final again against Roger Federer. But what a different person he was! He beat Federer in straight sets. In fact, in the run up to getting to the final he lost just one set in all the matches he played. It’s an astonishing thing, to do that in the Olympic Games. He would go on that year to win the US Open, beating Novak Djokovic in five sets. Andy Murray was on fire.

Fast forward to Wimbledon 2013: Murray beats Djokovic in straight sets in front of an adoring home crowd to become the first British man to hold the title in 77 years.

And I believe he had his loss from the year before to thank for it.

Last week I seconded a friend through one of the toughest kayaking races in the world. South Africa’s Berg River Canoe Marathon is a 240km race in the Western Cape. Cape winters are wet, and the water at this time of year is icy cold, and running fast. The Berg River comes off the mountains near Paarl, meanders along some beautiful wine lands and fields, and meets the sea on the West Coast at a place called Velddrif, just north of Saldanha Bay.

The race is regarded as the toughest canoe marathon in South Africa; in fact a number of the paddlers who have international experience regard it as the toughest kayaking marathon in the world. What makes it so difficult is that the Berg is a very narrow river, and you get a lot of tree blocks. So when a tree crashes down onto the river and you are coming down fast in a very narrow part – sometimes no more than the width of two cars – you suddenly have a tree in your way and have to go over it or under it or around it. The force of the river comes on hard, and you can get rammed up against the obstacle and seriously hurt yourself. This four-day event is a race for serious paddlers.

Ben Brown is a British athlete from Walton-on-Thames. He’s 27 years old, he’s twice been the world kayaking marathon champion, and this was his first Berg River Marathon race. Ben usually competes in Europe on the Thames or on big lakes in a very controlled environment, so this was going to be a new experience for him. He came out here and trained for a month beforehand, and I was delighted when he asked me to be his second on the race. He was certainly hoping to get on the podium, if not win it. And I had every confidence in his abilities.

The first day came and Ben literally flew down that river to come in first. There was a group of two with him in the lead, and he broke away right at the end and got a two or three second gap.

Ben was very confident then, and it was wonderful to see it. He’d gotten through all the tree blocks, unscathed. People were still coming in two or three hours behind him.

On the second day he wasn’t there when the first group passed under the bridges, and I realised there was something wrong.

He had come around a corner and a brand new tree had come down. Nobody had seen it. He was in a group of three; the first two went over safely, then Ben went over and somehow fell in. It took him nearly 20 minutes to recover his boat. It was full of water when he lifted it out, and heavy. He was standing on that tree with icy water rushing over him trying to empty out his boat. More than once he was pushed off the tree. It was a catastrophe. Twenty precious minutes went past, and he effectively lost the race.

But the next day he was back in the water and won the third stage. Ben is the kind of person who is always going to give it his all, and always do the very best he can. On the fourth and final day, day he was tired. There is 3km run as part of the race; I ran that section with him, and I could see that he was mentally and physically exhausted.

Ben finished 7th overall. He had caught up a lot of his time, but it wasn’t enough to be on the winner’s podium.

What do you say to someone who so easily could have won the event, if not for one small mistake? I wrote him a message. I told him how proud I was of him. And I told him that sometimes, a win is not the best result.

I realised that that might sound very silly to say, especially to a professional athlete. But when I saw Andy Murray lose Wimbledon last year, I knew it was a watershed moment for him. Deep strength comes from moments of adversity. When you come so close to winning, you know that next time you can win. Likewise when you taste such defeat, you never, ever want to taste it again. I told Ben that I believed Murray used that loss to build deep inner strength – and just look what followed. “When you finished today,” I wrote to Ben, “I felt that you had grown tremendously. It will be very exciting to see you race next year. Two stage wins show that you can clean up.”

There were two things I really like about Ben’s attitude. The first is that he doesn’t do self-pity, and the second is that he tries to keep his sense of humour at all times. These are characteristics that will get you through tough times. They are characteristics that will help you keep your team motivated, so your team can continue to support you, win or loose. And whether or not you walk off with the trophy, these characteristics are the true marks of a champion.

Author: Lewis Pugh is an ocean advocate, a pioneer swimmer and an inspirational speaker. In 2010 he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and in 2013 he was appointed Patron of the Oceans by the United Nations Environment Programme. He will shortly be departing on a 3-year expedition to highlight the plight of the world’s oceans. http://lewispugh.com

Photo credit: John Hishin