Erik Compton and the Importance of Failure

I was listening to a sports psychologist talking on the radio the other day about failure.  It came shortly after the U.S. Open Golf Championship at Pinehurst, where a golfer named Erik Compton tied for second.  This psychologist wasn’t talking about Compton failing to win the tournament, he was using him as an example of how failure can prepare us for success.


You see, Erik Compton is on his third heart.  When he was nine years old he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy.  His heart muscle was inflamed and unable to work hard enough to do its job.  For four years, doctors tried to treat his condition with medications – steroids, to be specific.  If you’ve ever had to take massive doses of steroids, or know anyone who has, you know how they can ravage the body in their attempt to heal it.  Erik’s features became bloated and grotesque, and this at a time when kids are trying to find themselves, to fit in with the world around them.  Erik didn’t fit, and in the way children can be exquisitely mean, he was often taunted and ridiculed because of his appearance.

By the time he was twelve, it was obvious the steroids weren’t going to work, and so doctors gave him a new heart and a new lease on life.  He became a golfer, a very good one, with a college scholarship to the University of Georgia.  When he graduated, he turned professional – playing on mini-tours, then the Nationwide Tour, and even a handful of tournaments on the PGA Tour.  He won some, and could see a bright future ahead as a professional.

Then came the big setback.  His second heart began to fail, and in 2008 he had another transplant and had to start all over on the long road to physical recovery and his quest for a life on the links.  You could say that when Erik Compton finished his final round at Pinehurst earlier this year, tied with Rickie Fowler for second, he had finished the journey.  No matter that Martin Kaymer won the golf tournament by eight strokes.  Erik Compton won the life tournament.

You can say all sorts of good things about Erik Compton.  He has great talent, he works hard, he has persistence and spirit.  He has heart.  But what this sports psychologist was talking about was how Erik’s life of setbacks contributed to the golfer and person he is today.  He had to endure childhood ridicule, and what has to be one of the most difficult physical challenges I can imagine, having your heart taken from your body and replaced with another one – twice.  He confronted failure, and the threat of failure, at every turn.  So on one of golf’s biggest stages, under mind-boggling pressure, he performed with skill and grace because he had faced failure and conquered it.  No mere golf tournament could compare with what he had been through.

This psychologist says his advice to parents is to let our kids face failure honestly.  Don’t try to sugar-coat it, don’t say it doesn’t matter, don’t make excuses.  We can’t keep our kids from failing, no matter how hard we try.  The best we can do is help them recognize it, deal with it, and learn from it.  If we’re having trouble with that, we can sit down with our kids in front of a TV, find a professional golf tournament, and watch Erik Compton.  He knows how to fail, and through failing, win.

Robert Inman's novels -- Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, Captain Saturday, and The Governor's Lady -- are available on