I got an invite to join a bunch of failures. 

Receiving an invitation to join a failure group understandably created some mixed emotions. Was I to be grateful or insulted that Mitch (Steve Mitchell) thought I was suitably qualified to attend?!  

Mitch gathered a ragtag bunch of leaders from the sports world to enable positive reflection and action stemming from the storytelling of organisational and personal failure.  Steve was inspired by an #FWord event held at City Hall some 5 years ago, his book club (Covey, Collins, Brown, Sinek) and more recently this Brewdog F-word blog for these gatherings of failures. As I listened to others give their failure reports, stories of humility and compassion during COVID, I wondered what would mine look like? Certainly for those giving their f-word report it seemed to be a really positive experience. The last 12-months as a leader in the Voluntary Sector organisation during a global pandemic, as a business owner and as a dad of 3 had definitely clocked up enough learning moments of failure if I was willing to park my ego and look at their reflection for long enough.  

These failures have, at times, been bloody painful and whilst I’m pleased with the fruit of their pruning I will not pretend for one second that it has been easy.  This was not a self-flagellation exercise, but it was actually really helpful and freeing. 

F-word fathering.

  • Time for the interruptions.

I map my day: it’s a habit which has massively helped with focus, productivity and juggling two jobs. (I use the Self Journal, by BestSelf.) What I struggled (even neglected) to do was factor in the homeschooling interruptions. One day I spent 45 unplanned minutes trying to sort out printer ink. Mapping my day helps me stay sane and so when I feel I’ve gone off-course. I can struggle to hold a productive mindset for the rest of that time. Often, this means I lack the grace and openness required when interrupted. This should have been obvious, three kids at home will not fit neatly into my preplanned day. When a child is stuck trying to find a word in the French dictionary or they don’t agree with the work the teachers set or yet again I’m required as some kind of IT support, I’m not always the parent I want to be in those moments.

  • Weak annual camping trip. 

I’m really proud of a number of family rhythms we have, and the one I love the most is that I take each of the kids away on a camping trip on their own each year. Just me and them, they choose the place, activities and food (budget allowing).  Last year we still did this…well kinda…they were debilitated trips. I could blame the lack of open campsites, but we know places to go and to be honest I just ran out of parenting energy for it. Which I now regret. In 20 years time, my kids and I will not care about my work or the zoom meetings I had around those camping trips (but then equally they are unlikely to remember this camping trip). I let one of my highlights of the year be hijacked by the unimportant stuff. Thankfully there is enough time to make more memories next year.  Those weekends are in the diary already and so is a reminder the week before each one to not be overbooked. 

  • Compulsory fancy dress Friday and family Zooms.

What started as really good fun took a bad turn, fast. In lockdown one, every Friday we had a film night and before that, we had our weekly family fancy dress Friday. We took it in turns to choose the theme and things got a bit competitive. We would send the weekly photo out to family and friends and they would try and guess our theme. Which when it worked, worked really well. The issue was that one Friday – after a week all being at home – our emotions were at their most strained and energy levels at their lowest. Throw into the mix an over-competitive family and you can work out the results of this (not that anyone who saw the photo would have guessed as we faked “happy family” for the photo.)  In lockdown three we’ve changed it. The kids don’t have to join in if they don’t want to. Most of the time they do, but even us adults have had the odd week off as we just haven’t had the energy to get creative. The added bonus is that some of the fancy dress outfits have been manageable with minimum effort. Which is also fine. 

We’ve taken the same approach to family zooms.  We know that grandparents want to see them, and again most of the time they all join in, but it has so helped with allowing them more freedom to make their own choices. 

  • Harder on the one more like me.   

Of all the new levels of understanding which lockdown has helped me see in the mirror, this is the one I’m most gutted about and it stems from my own lack of self-worth. All of my kids reflect elements of my character and habits, but one reflects them more than the other two. They remind me of me, a lot. This reflection of myself has resulted in my being harder on them than the other two around those issues and habits which I feel will lead to them becoming more like me. This isn’t massively obvious, it’s not like I have them living in a Harry Potter-style cupboard under the stairs, it’s just that my compassion and empathy for those traits which most reflect me is lacking. The reality is that for good or ill all three of them will be like me and their mother as they make their own cocktail of what’s modelled and exampled by us as parents. They will not be “fixed” in these habits because humans can and do change: the sense of direction, however, has been set. It’s the gift and challenge of parenting. Most importantly, this isn’t really a parenting issue, I need to be better at liking me.

  • Marriage on maintenance mode. 

I’ve enjoyed a nearly 20-year long marriage with someone I would consider my best friend as well as my soulmate. We are a pretty awesome team at juggling the challenges of the different areas of our lives but the reality of COVID, home learning, a business in freefall, supporting our wider family and doing church online rather than face-to-face meant that our marriage went well and truly into an exhausted maintenance state. I have and continue to firmly hold the view that quality parenting requires children to have stable loving relationships around them. As our marriage was thrust into maintenance mode what fell aside was the space for us to be more than just co-managers of our household. While this in the short-term will have no long-term detrimental effects on our relationship and more importantly the kids, the long-term consequences of this failure to give our relationship the necessary fuel would be extremely detrimental for all.  We are working hard at trying to ensure that we are once again connecting with each other as a couple romantically not just organisationally, but even that takes tons of planning. 

F- word business running 

  • Frenzied activity.

In March 2020 I had a full diary of bookings for the next six months speaking at and working with some amazing professional sports teams and institutions. This work supported athletes, coaches and parents to have better conversations with each other to give better outcomes for athletes. In one week 98% of those bookings were wiped out. The first two weeks were lovely, the sun was shining and I’d done WAY too much travelling in the months before so it was like having a nice little break. Then the reality started to dawn. I panicked and I started saying yes to every little opportunity which came along. Hosting webinars, being on others’ webinars and podcasts. Writing blogs and trying to pitch ideas to people. All in a frenzied attempt to find some sort of traction in a sector which was halted almost overnight. Much of this activity led to very little and resulted in me feeling exhausted. Couple that with recovering from having COVID myself and I was left feeling very flat. I’m grateful to my friends Ed Pearson and Susie Flashman Jarvis who helped to stop and focus on what would be helpful. I still think I’m recovering from the emotional fallout of that six months. 

  •  Launching a sports parenting course when there was no sport.  

The Yanks loved it. It was unique and, most importantly, the evidence was that it was impactful. So it had to work in the UK, right? Wrong. Having seen a soccer club in the USA (I think this is football in the UK) make 500+ parents and players do a ‘pre-season conversations’ course together, with the feedback being even better than I expected, I then poured hours into producing the UK version. What a numpty. I’ve always believed that context is “King”, I pride myself on making my work context-specific. No samey packages from me. On this occasion, I forgot that. The UK version fell flat on its face. Why? Because there was little or no sport happening in the UK for parents and children to be discussing and even for those small glimmers of hope we had in June/July there was a “honeymoon” period to that time and so no-one was thinking about making progress, we were all just so relieved to be back doing sport. A painful reminder that context is always King.

  •  Turned a hobby into a chore. 

Like many people, I tried to take up a new(ish) hobby during lockdown. My mum and her mum were both excellent artists and so I started drawing again. Well, more like doodling. Then I had an idea for a drawing/doodling about sports parents. So I started doing these every Friday. To start with it was a fun and useful way to switch off. Then it became pressure. The pressure to think of something new every week. What was a useful hobby for my wellbeing became a weekly burden. I hope that #fridaydoodle will return, but only when I feel like it’s a joy, not a bind to bring it back.

  • They “owed me” – no, they don’t. 

Full diary to empty diary, but that definitely meant those who had worked with me and who I’d done favours for over the last few years would help me out and stand by me, right?  I worked hard at being friends with clients, not as a marketing trick, but because it’s how I roll. In forming these connections I had fallen into the trap of subconsciously thinking that they owed me. They didn’t and they were having to navigate their own issues as the reality of a global pandemic set in. It was not personal that they dropped me, ignored me and used other people, but I took it personally. It felt personal because I had placed friendship above being a service provider. Again I’d forgotten their context and how hard it was for them to juggle it all, it wasn’t personal. I’m learning to take it less personally and I’m increasing the gratitude I have for those who do continue to trust me and use me, knowing not to take these opportunities for granted. 

  •  The knowledgeable fool. 

Yes, social media has its strengths and no-one needs to be warned about its weaknesses, yet it still pulls us in. Often I’m pulled into using far more energy than is needed by being distracted by those with knowledge but lack wisdom expressing it.  Some people know some really cool stuff, their knowledge is evidence-based and high impacting and yet their social media presence is divisive, unhealthily cynical and very cliquey. I’m not someone who follows the new age mantra of “remove all negative people from your life” because who’d we have to engage with other than those “fake” social media influencers? I follow people I disagree with because it is a great way to refine your own thinking and explore changing your mind. But I lacked wisdom in thinking that I could hold balance in the face of such self-righteous expression of knowledge (although ironically is this me being self-righteous in saying this?) It became exhausting, I hit unfollow and block, not because they are bad people, but their use of SM just isn’t for me anymore. 

Church Minister F-word

  • Didn’t ‘do’ enough when George Floyd was murdered.

On May 25th George Floyd was murdered, and as the shocking film of his death made its way around the world it was clear that this was a breakwater moment for understanding and responding to racism in our society and world. My personal regret is that at the time we did not ‘do’ enough about this as a church. Yes, we prayed and mentioned it, but the ‘doing’ we could have done would have meant more time listening to black stories and exploring themes of justice and the rich Christian theology of justice and inclusion. A global pandemic was a convenient excuse to avoid paying more than lip service to what was and is a complex issue and unresolved set of societal issues. 

  • Projected my middle-class lockdown needs onto others. 

Joe Wicks’ daily workout was largely unknown in my community for the first lockdown. Certainly very few in this working-class area which has large pockets of deprivation were doing Joe Wicks. This, for me, became the first real clue that my middle-class lockdown was very different from my friends and those in our church community. Online learning was a massive challenge to most of the families we knew. Schools were seeing less than 30% of children log on or engage with the learning material. What was the issue that drove home to me just how middle-class our lockdown was? It was that for a number of my friends they barely noticed lockdown. The long-term unemployed can already be housebound and living on the limited resources they can find in the shops. Empty shelves, going to the food bank and not seeing people were a part of their ‘normal’ routine. Even now we know people who haven’t yet used Zoom. For me, this meant we made a number of mistakes in those first days of assuming our needs were the needs of those around us. We certainly were not all in the same boat. 

  • Didn’t accept we were small. 

Lockdown was a massive opportunity to help and more importantly to support others helping each other, but we just didn’t have the capacity to offer much. The reality is Alison and I co-lead our small church, I had COVID in the first 2 weeks of the first lockdown and it hit me for six. Thankfully others supported us with shopping etc but this slow start meant that while everyone else on social media was sharing stories of how they’d supported community WhatsApp groups and the sharing of food parcels and loo rolls, we were stuck inside. Again, COVID has helped “right-size” my perception of me and the church I lead. We are small and that’s ok, it just means that we need to plan to work more with others and accept the time limitations we have. At Christmas this year it was great to work with the local Salvation Army to deliver families food and present parcels. Something we’d never have been able to do on own. 

  • Saviour complex. 

When we moved to our community nearly 12 years ago, we wanted everything to be based around relationships, not activity. It was like this to start with, and then from those relationships loads of activity grew. We are good at activity, perhaps a little too good. COVID stopped most of our activity in its tracks and for us, this was a painful jolt. Lockdowns have forced us back into focusing on relationships and to be honest, that came with a massive sense of vulnerability and uselessness. I love working in, working with and working for this community. Not all of the working has stopped completely, but enough has to make me realise the power imbalances that had grown all around my “activity” and my own need to be doing things for others rather than just being with others. COVID is a particularly tricky time to just do relationships, it’s not like everyone can come round for a BBQ and chill in the garden. Most of the phone calls I make with people are groundhog days in their content since nothing new is happening to any of us and it makes us all feel a little hamstrung. It’s been a cracking but painful reminder that I’m no saviour for my community. My faith gives me hope there is a saviour and that it definitely ain’t me, it’s just sometimes I get confused about that. COVID has helped with that confusion. (Photo of socially distanced church football tennis in the park.)

  • This is lonely.

I’m not sure which of the three this best fits, so I’ll leave it here. In all the juggling of lockdowns and the different hats I wear, I think it’s safe to say this is the loneliest I’ve felt, ever. With all the Zoom meetings, the privilege of leading church online and delivering sessions for some of the most famous sports teams in the country, I still feel very isolated. The joy of having this much time with the kids is something that I will look back on with fondness, but it has still felt like a period of enforced solitary confinement, which I am slowing learning to accept rather than let it drain my energy in pretending all is fine. It is not a failure that this has felt lonely, my failure was pretending it wasn’t draining and painful.  It’s ok to feel lonely. 

This dreadful pandemic offered me a look into the mirror at a different angle and to be honest, the view wasn’t always good, but reflecting on it like this has given me a bit more hope and helped me see where I’m actually doing really well in the midst of my failures. 

What would your F-word report look like for the last 12 months?


Richard Shorter enables coaches, parents, and athletes to have better conversations so that all have better outcomes.

Drop him a line if you’d like to know what that would like in your organisation.

Here he is in one of his fancy dress Friday outfits.