Overcoming Setbacks

  • Published
  • By Maj. Ken French
  • 420th Munitions Squadron

I distinctly remember my high school soccer coach telling the team one afternoon that sports were lessons in life and would not only helps us overcome obstacles on the field, but also off the field. How right he was! Freshman year went well for me. I worked hard, floated between junior varsity and varsity and received more than my fair share of playing time. Life was good. However, sophomore year was completely different. I had planned on earning a starting position on varsity and playing more than I ever wanted. That was not to be because a new coaching staff was hired. Not only was I benched, I only played about 15 minutes of junior varsity soccer the entire year regardless of how hard I worked. A complete turnaround! A negative turnaround. I was frustrated, discouraged and ready to quit after that second season especially after watching my club teammates achieve far better results at their respective high schools. Regardless of how well one plans or how hard someone works, life is full of setbacks and letdowns. These temporary setbacks can lead a person to be discouraged and willing to give up.  

Now, how did I handle the situation? Did I pull myself up by my proverbial “boot straps?” Kind of…more like laces. I determined I would work even harder that summer by starting a weight-training regimen and engaging in plyometric workouts—just putting my nose to the grindstone. As my mother would say:  “it doesn’t have to be fun, but it has to be done.” One thing for sure is that I wanted to make it on my own merit and accord. I did not want to be one of those individuals whose parents were always complaining to the coaches. Fortunately, the third year was a complete reversal from the second year and I earned a starting defensive position and probably received far more playing time than I deserved. Hard work and perseverance (GRIT) pay off.

Today, as with everyone, I still face challenges and obstacles, just different flavors now that I am supposed to be a responsible adult. An example of a different flavor for me is I find it very frustrating when someone whom I lead does not succeed after witnessing all of the effort the individual has put into a task or project. At a previous assignment there was a particular SNCO that was instrumental in turning around the maintenance section of the squadron and ensured the unit not only passed one inspection, but three…the third inspection was rated as operationally flawless. However, since the unit was not close to the seat of power, the individual received zero recognition. I believe I was more peeved about the situation than he was. Nevertheless, he had the right attitude; it is about moving the ball forward—developing the next generation of leaders etc. To this individual developing people was the true reward and challenge. He still loved his job and stayed focused on what was truly important to him despite apparent setbacks. Success cannot always be measured by what you achieve on paper, toeing the company line, or promotions. A perceived setback may be an opportunity in disguise; you just have to recognize it.

Each one of us has faced challenges and setbacks throughout our Air Force careers. I lean heavily on early life experiences to keep moving the ball forward. I’ve also learned to trust in my faith and the support of my family. The Old Testament is full of examples of individuals facing insurmountable odds or terrible circumstances.  Job, David and Daniel are just a few that come to mind. These individuals faced serious setbacks, terrible situations, and low odds of success. Now they are examples of perseverance and hope throughout the ages. In the end, I always know that if I stick to my core principles and work hard, I will continue to improve and improve those around me even if it feels like a setback in the moment.

If you are someone who is discouraged, frustrated, or faced recent setbacks, keep pushing forward—we’ve all been there. I was fortunate to experience some great life lessons at a young age through sports and other shenanigans. These lessons are too numerous to count but have helped me tremendously. If you are someone who has not had those experiences, your Air Force family is with you! Someone in your shop has overcome some significant challenges and can help you develop the tools to do so as well. Look at the challenges and setbacks as opportunities to get better. We learn far more from failure than we do success. If it appears you’ve just experienced a setback or failure, remember that “excellence is a journey, not a destination.”