Failure as Teacher, not Undertaker. Failure as Delay, not Defeat: Professional Development in Physiotherapy

In our previous blog we looked at the significance of utilising video capture, processing and sharing of training and competition to optimise knowledge and understanding of sport, leading to the personal development of pupils and coaches. The blog touched upon the understanding that modern youth sport is a rich learning environment which pupils and coaches are constantly evaluating and adapting their practice based upon these learning experiences.

In this blog I wanted to look at the role of failure within physiotherapy practice, and how this is can act as a catalyst for learning and practitioner development despite the negative connotations around the term ‘failure’. Failure in most domains is considered a negative. Failure is seen as ‘the undertaker’ and a defeat. To be seen to fail is to somehow demonstrate a lack of knowledge, competence or experience within physiotherapy. This viewpoint often leads to individuals feeling anxious and having low self-worth and perceived competence. In the current climate where people’s mental health is in focus, we must question if this view of failure is healthy and sustainable.

As one of our physiotherapy team states, “I fail every day in my physiotherapy practice. This may be in the form of a diagnosis that evolves over the course of someone’s rehab, not providing the optimum loading for an individual’s exercise program or not doing all I can to ensure a pupil buys-in and is compliant with the rehab program I have provided them with. I have had cases where I have missed the mark and failed as a physiotherapist. The knock-on effect is that a pupil may feel unsure of what they are to do or their direction of travel or maybe that individual will seek a second opinion and never feel able to seek my support again.”

Now you may be thinking at this point ‘if they fail so often then how can they continue to be a therapist and consider themselves effective?’. This was a concept I struggled with earlier in my career when situations like this would lead to a high degree of self-analysis and scrutiny and a negative emotional cycle for an period of time. What was gained from this process? Nothing. It wasn’t until the emotion had passed that I was then able to reflect on the situation and gain an insight into what I could have done differently and how it could have played out in another way. Then it began to dawn on me. Failure was a tool for learning and by learning from these situations I was able to improve my subsequent practice and not repeat the same mistakes again. The ‘future me’ is now grateful for these experiences and so are the pupils that enter the clinic for rehabilitation.

The reality of the world we work in is that we are rarely going to be presented with a situation that is straightforward and ‘perfect’. We are more likely to encounter the ‘perfect storm’ where all the variables in each situation will come together to conspire against us. Rather than fear this situation and fear the failure which will inevitably coincide with these scenarios, we must be willing to ‘fail fast’, learn and move forward with the challenge. Overcoming these challenges will ultimately give us the greatest sense of satisfaction when we have helped someone overcome their own significant challenge (injury) and supported them in achieving their treatment goals. Being comfortable with failure will allow you to become a better, healthier and happier practitioner. Remember, the journey never stops. See failure as the teacher, not the undertaker. See failure as delay, not defeat.

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