The hard lessons of failure

Rory McIlroy is fast becoming a household name.

Rory McIlroy is fast becoming a household name.

So too is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, at least in Canada.

In the world of junior hockey, Darcy Kuemper is at the top of puck-stopping heap, after an exceptional, record-breaking year.

All three young men spent at least part of the weekend discovering how if feels when you completely lose your equilibrium. Crashing back to earth can leave lasting scars.

McIlroy, the 21-year-old Irish professional golf phenom, went into the last round of the Masters with a four-shot lead. Five hours later, he left the course at Augusta, Ga., on Sunday afternoon in chagrin, after having shot an 80 to finish 10 shots behind winner Charl Schwartzel.

In the aftermath of his near-unprecedented collapse, the young man faced the press with aplomb and admitted his crisis of confidence. He talked about his disappointment, about losing his confidence, about “unravelling,” about “second guessing” his decision-making.

He also talked about the value of an experience, however devastating it may be. “I’ve got to take the positives, and the positives were I led this tournament for 63 holes,” he said late Sunday afternoon, with millions of golf fans watching.

And McIlroy talked about what the future holds for him. “You know, I’ll have plenty more chances. I know that.”

Certainly the stage was nowhere as big, nor were the stakes — but the Red Deer Rebels should understand how McIlroy feels today.

And they should take heed of his maturity in facing such disappointment and the need to regroup and press on.

After an exceptional year, led by Nugent-Hopkins and Kuemper, the Rebels are on the cusp of a collapse every bit as colossal as that by McIlroy.

After finishing first in their Western Hockey League division, and sweeping the Edmonton Oil Kings in four games in the first round of the playoffs, they lost two games by huge margins to the Medicine Hat Tigers on the weekend.

Losing 9-1 and 5-0 before sellout crowds at home has the potential to be humiliating in a fashion that can undermine your competitive core.

It can also be the ultimate test.

McIlroy’s willingness to own his failings, and to look ahead, shows remarkable composure for such a young man. “This is my first experience at it, and hopefully the next time I’m in this position, I’ll be able to handle it a bit better,” he said. “I didn’t handle it particularly well today, obviously.”

Kuemper, who just completed a record-setting regular season, has often been praised for the maturity he has gained in the last year.

Nugent-Hopkins, who may well be the top National Hockey League draft pick this spring, has almost always shown a single-minded dedication that belies his age.

But to all young people who aspire to greatness, obstacles will appear. And sometimes they are the obstacles that your mind conjures, particularly after the tide of good fortune turns into what appears to be a tsunami of failure.

McIlroy, Nugent-Hopkins and Kuemper have climbed the ladder of success with a combination of talent, hard work and commitment.

Whether they will continue to succeed depends on their ability to withstand the mental pummeling that being an athlete will inevitably deliver.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.