Helping Athletes Learn from Failure and Disappointment

Joe Friel talks with four-time world champion triathlete turned coach Julie Dibens about how we can use failure and disappointment as an opportunity for growth.

After a 15-year racing career, which included four world championship titles and two Olympics, Julie Dibens took all she learned on the racecourse and transitioned to coaching full time. Since making this move in 2013, she has established the JD Crew, a strong team of athletes and assistant coaches based in Boulder, Colorado.

Using a blend of experience, training science, and instinct, she now coaches more than 25 athletes. And while she might be a household name in the sport of triathlon who enjoyed plenty of world-class victories, she also experienced more than her fair share of injuries and setbacks during her pro career, which makes her the ideal person to talk candidly here with Joe Friel about learning from failure and disappointment.

“If you can get yourself to the finish line, you walk away with a lot of positives.”

– Julie diBEns

Video Transcript

Joe Friel  00:09

You’ve had a wealth of experience – 25 athletes is a lot to be coaching. When I talk to coaches, that’s the upper limit to the amount of athletes that they can take on board (about 25). I know you’re very busy.

Julie Dibens  00:21

I am not very good at saying no.

Is Failure a Good Thing?

Joe Friel  00:24

I understand that, I’ve been through this. I want to draw on that wealth of experience you’ve had working with athletes, and being an athlete yourself for so many years, 15 years is long time in the sport. But, one of the things that we’ve been talking about in terms of this Craft of Coaching project is that sometimes failure is a good thing, because you learn a lot from it.

One of my former clients, this is a guy I coached, maybe 10-12 years ago, a triathlete. He wrote a book called Celebrating Failure. He talks about that very topic that when you have a failure, you actually learn more than if you were successful. You come out of it a better person. But, you can potentially come out of it a worse person also depending on how you deal with it. But his point was, you come out of it as a better person, better equipped to deal with what’s going on in your world. In his world, it was the business world. In our world, it’s sport. Have you ever had an experience like that for yourself or with athletes you’ve coached or just know of?

Diben’s Real Life Experience with Failure

Julie Dibens  01:32

Yeah, definitely I have many experiences. Like one of them that I hadn’t thought of that popped up in my mind just then was racing the ITU World Champs, it was in Cancun. I was always a good swim-biker. Running was my weakness and the way the race panned out on the day, the whole field was together, it was like 50 or 60 women. I pulled out 5K into the run, and I was just like, “What’s the point? I’m not a good runner.” My coach there at the time, Richard Hobson, he was super calm speaking. He’s a nice guy, but he just totally lost it with me. He was like, you can never ask yourself that question. I learned that day that no matter what, I would get myself to the finish line, as long as I wasn’t hurt. If I’m having a bad day, and he’s said, “You’re gonna beat yourself up for the next two weeks over this?” Sure, he was right, and I did. That was a big learning point for me that day.

Joe Friel  02:46

Let’s just dig into that a little bit deeper, it brings up some questions in my mind. What was the underlying situation that caused you to drop out of the race? Was it heat or nutrition?

Julie Dibens  02:59

I was just feeling sorry for myself, and just having having a bad day.

I think sometimes you see athletes afraid to leave it all out there, because like, it’s not what you want it to be. Sometimes, and I know in that moment, I decided that it was better for me, or I was afraid to see where I was really at. If that meant me coming in 45th or 50th, I didn’t want to see that. So, for me in that moment, I think I just pulled out. Then as I say, like, beat myself up over it for the next two weeks, and vowed to never do that again. I tell my athletes all the time, if you can get yourself to the finish line, you walk away with lots of positives. There’s so many mind games that you play out there, that you can’t give yourself that option to get out. Just because you’re having a bad day.

Joe Friel  04:02

Yeah, I’ve seen that happen before in many athletes. So was there were there any indications before the race? This wasn’t going to be a good day for you? Is there anything going on there?

Julie Dibens  04:12

I had been struggling, it was my first race back from from injury, so the running wasn’t the best it could be. But, in hindsight, I should have just been happy to be racing, and it was a World Championship. But, it was a massive learning point for me that day.

Joe Friel  04:34

The learning point was get to the finish line.

Even if you’re not happy, you’re not going to be on the podium, you’re not going to have a decent time, just get to the finish line.

Julie Dibens  04:42

Yeah, exactly. Get to the finish line and leave it all out there because if you don’t, then you don’t know where you’re at in your fitness, in your training. What’s working and what’s not working, if you don’t finish? Then we don’t have anything to work from.

Times When an Athlete Should Pull Out of a Race

Joe Friel  04:57

Would there be any situations, things are going on causing this to happen in the race, that you would say don’t finish? Should there be times when the athlete does pull out of the race?

Julie Dibens  05:10

If you’re hurt, or if there’s an injury involved, then 100%. Like, I think you have the green light to pull out. Like with the professionals, you’re trying to make a living. If you know that there are races coming up afterwards that you have a shot to get a pay check, then maybe there’s a reason to pull out. But I think that that’s a dangerous game to play.

Joe Friel  05:35

Would you classify this now looking back as a good experience, because you learned something?

Julie Dibens  05:40

Massively. For me, myself as an athlete, and also I share that story with many of my athletes now. If they’re having a similar day, and I think they appreciate hearing my experience.

How Dibens Helped Her Athletes Use Failure in a Positive Light

Joe Friel  05:56

Julie, very interesting story about your own experience with experiencing a failure. How about your athletes? Have you had any athletes you worked with which have been through the same sort of similar situation that you’ve had to deal with?

Julie Dibens  06:10

Yeah, definitely. Most recently, at the St. George Ironman World Championship, I remember I had an athlete there who had had really great, almost perfect, preparation leading in. He was feeling good, excited. It was his first World Championship, and the race didn’t go well. He really struggled emotionally afterwards. I saw him, I was there in person, so I saw him out on the course. I encouraged him to keep going and get to the finish. Then, immediately afterwards, there was a lot of emotion from him. We talked through it a little bit. Again, I tried to point out some of the positives. Then, about 10 days later, we met back here in Boulder and did a debrief. I think it’s always hard when you go into your first World Championship, especially at the Ironman level, like you have such high expectations and hopes. But it was a massive learning experience for him, and that was probably the biggest thing, the biggest positive that we talked about afterwards.

Joe Friel  07:36

You took away a positive experience from having even a failure. He walked away a better athlete in some ways.

Julie Dibens  07:43

100%. He has big dreams and aspirations in the sport, especially Ironman. I think those that follow Ironman know that, especially at the professional level, it’s very rare that you go into your first World Championship and crush it. He learned a lot that day. I think he walked away, the biggest lesson he learned, was setting his expectations at the right level. It’s very easy to get caught up in the hype and the excitement. I think, in hindsight, his expectations going in were a little too high. Then that ended up hurting his day.

Joe Friel  08:31

So Julie, that sounds like it was a pretty difficult situation for that athlete who failed to finish or had a poor race. What’s going to be the thing you’re going to be working with him going forwards, that may help him deal with situations like that in the future?

Julie Dibens  08:48

I think initially, the most important thing we did was lay out the path moving forward as far as which races to do next. Like, a World Championship, quite often, like you draw the line to that point, and we don’t know what else is coming afterwards. It was important for me to give him the time to reset, step away, and then re-find his motivation. That’s the value of having the group here in Boulder, I think the group helps pick people up when they’re down. So I think that helped him initially when emotional motivation was down. We talked in-depth about what we were going to change, and how we were going to change it. Even though the preparation had been good.

Joe Friel  09:47

With the changes, were they all physical or are there some mental changes going on there also?

Julie Dibens  09:52

There are some changes that we made to the training specifically, but then also we talked about expectations, and just like the World Championship is just a whole different beast, and that was his first experience. I think he walked away fully understanding what people mean when they say that.

Joe Friel  10:16

Sounds like he would agree with my former client’s book then, where he said that, “Failure is sometimes good for you, because you learn a lot when you fail, that you don’t learn when you succeed.” It’s a good thing for coaches also in some regards. It’s not something you really want to seek out. But, when it happens, you need to be able to respond to it in an appropriate way. That appropriate way would be keeping your cool.

Julie Dibens  10:41

I think keeping your cool and just being there for them. Let them go through the disappointment, the frustration, the sadness. Try to be like a calm voice of reason for them. Let them lose their shit if they need to. But just stay calm and try to stay calm, at least. It’s not easy.

How to Learn from Athlete Success Stories

Joe Friel  11:07

When working with your athletes, or just looking back over time with your athletes, have you ever had an experience where an athlete really just achieved something that was probably, you thought beyond their capability of achieving it? That this was an outstanding event for this athlete in their career? Was there anything like that happened in your coaching?

Julie Dibens  11:29

Definitely. One of the things that jumps out is when Tim O’Donnell came second, in Kona. I think that was pre-pandemic 2019, maybe even 2018. But he had broken his foot about two months before, which is obviously sub-optimal. We just managed to still prepare him the best that we could. We switched up the plan a little bit more to focus more on the swim-bike, got him running on the Ultra G. I think he was running outside for maybe one week before the race. But, mentally he was just prepared and ready to give his best. I don’t think any of us in his team were expecting him to have the day that he had, and to walk away coming second was an unbelievable thing.

Joe Friel  12:29

You had to come away (both of you) feeling really great about the turnout. Do you think it was mostly because you changed his training plan (he was not running on the road)? You also did some things mentally with him?

Julie Dibens  12:46

I think the physical side, it played to his advantage because the race for him, he came second because he had such a great swim-bike. With us switching the focus, and putting more emphasis on the bike, and with him running less on the road, he had less muscle breakdown, so it allowed his bike to really step up to the next level. He made that front group on the bike, and then on the run, it was more about holding it together and not falling apart. That’s where his mental strength and toughness came through. We all know, in Kona, it’s incredibly hard out there.

The Perfect Mental State for Race Day

Joe Friel  13:28

The mental side of it always interests me. Was there anything that you or he was doing that brought him to this perfect mental state on race day?

Julie Dibens  13:38

Tim, in himself, is extremely calculated. I believe that he is one of the most mentally tough athletes out there. But I think we all believed that the switch up in the training could make his race, and it’s something that I learned a lot from, and it’s something that I’ve done with other athletes moving forward getting ready for an Ironman. It’s something that we hope to do again for him. He recently just qualified for Kona, so it’s something that we might do again.

Joe Friel  14:13

Julie, appreciate it. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, how might they reach out to you?

Julie Dibens  14:18

Through my website, There’s a form on there that you can fill out, and then we’ll get back to you.

Joe Friel  14:27

Great. Thank you so much. Appreciate your input. Very good information for everybody.

Julie Dibens  14:32

Awesome. Thanks for having me!