Need to know
As a psychologist who supports elite athletes in their competitive pursuits, I spend most of my time with individuals whose job requires them to perform at their highest potential, but at the same time asks them to ultimately surrender themselves to the fact that they do not have complete control over the outcome. Winning is thrilling, but winning is never guaranteed. This means that my clients – who have included professional golfers, soccer players and tennis players, elite collegiate athletes and Olympians – are also intimately familiar with making mistakes and, at times, falling short.
The sports media offers an up-close-and-personal view of competitors in the throes of a painful loss. It’s easy to call to mind the image of a dejected athlete: slumped posture, downcast eyes, and the weight of the world on their shoulders. Of course, any of us who consider ourselves competitors, in athletics or other domains, can relate to that image on some level. We know the sinking feeling in the gut that accompanies the pain of a loss. The disappointment of losing is a universal one. And while few among us can relate to the experience of being, say, a professional football player, you needn’t be a pro athlete to glean lessons from sport and performance psychology that can help you in your own pursuits – whether you compete in martial arts matches, performing arts competitions, or even poker tournaments.
A core lesson is that the act of losing is not the problem in itself. The problems often arise in one’s relationship to the concept of losing and in how one responds to losing. Part of what separates truly elite competitors from their counterparts is their ability to respond to losses in ways that lead to growth, rather than to a merging with the pain of loss.
Losing is part of the process of growth
When the American football quarterback Cam Newton was once criticised for his abrupt departure from a Super Bowl postgame press conference, he retorted: ‘Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.’ While this type of thinking abounds in competitive spheres, performance psychologists know that it often sets people back. Athletes, artists and others improve when they push themselves to try new things, to be vulnerable, to begin anew. Each of these sometimes involves making mistakes and failing.
Losing hurts, but competitors cannot grow or lead more meaningful lives if they refuse to accept that losing is a part of the process of growth and mastery. If your goal is to avoid the pain of losing entirely, you are more likely to refuse to take risks, to steer clear of challenges, to ‘play small’. Fear of failure can keep you stuck. Likewise, holding on to losses too tightly can prevent you from moving forward. You may mentally fuse to your loss, fixating on feelings of inadequacy, disappointment and frustration. These feelings are natural but dwelling on them is a major roadblock to success. The good news is that you can learn to hold the thoughts and emotions that accompany a loss more gently. Doing so better equips you to ‘get back on the horse’ soon after a setback.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a common therapeutic approach for working with multiple psychological concerns, posits that much of human suffering occurs as a result of trying to avoid or control pain. Although ACT is used as a general therapeutic approach, many sport psychology practitioners (including me) find its framework helpful in working with elite performers. ACT is a ‘third wave’ behavioural therapy that encourages mindful attention to the present moment and acting in values-driven ways. Additionally, it teaches us to accept that pain is inevitable. In doing so, ACT suggests we will be able to pursue rich and meaningful lives because we accept pain and struggle as a part of that process.
When you start to refocus your attention from the sting of a loss to the lessons that you can learn from it, you will be well on your way to becoming a ‘better loser’. Pain and losing are part of the journey of a life well lived. Drawing on some of the techniques from ACT and other mental skills that I use in my own practice, let’s explore how you can better handle the pain of losing and learn to relate to losses in ways that will help you grow.
What to do
If step one of becoming a better loser is accepting that losses are a part of a meaningful experience, what comes next?
Meet the pain of losing with mindfulness
Practising mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment without judging it or getting stuck in it. The most powerful analogy I’ve encountered that illustrates mindfulness involves picturing a flowing river. The river represents our stream of experiences: sensations, thoughts and emotions. When we are not mindful, we are completely caught up in the river’s current and we get swept downstream. We are wholly consumed by an experience rather than observing it. Mindfulness, on the other hand, involves climbing out of the stream of experiences and on to the riverbank, where we can sit beside the stream and observe our sensations, thoughts and emotions flow by, moment to moment.
Try to recall the last time you experienced a difficult loss, including what you were thinking and what you felt. What sorts of messages were going through your mind? Perhaps your mind told you: I can’t do this, or I sucked today, or asked: How could you have made that mistake? Notice the emotions you experienced. Perhaps there was embarrassment or shame, disappointment or helplessness. Maybe you also felt sensations of tightness in your chest, a pit in your stomach, or a racing heartbeat. Each of these examples is an internal experience that you can be consumed by – or that you can instead observe from a distance. If you allow these experiences to consume you, you are stuck in a state of reaction. Being a better loser, at its core, means reducing reactions and choosing responses instead.
Mindfulness is so useful during and after a loss because it creates a bit of distance from, and perspective on, the experience, which allows you to move away from knee-jerk reactions and towards making intentional choices about how you want to proceed. It is less a narrowly defined skill and more a way of relating to the world. One can be mindful of an experience as simple as the sensation of breathing, or as complex as all the thoughts and emotions that come up after a loss.
I typically introduce athletes to mindfulness by asking them to call their attention to the sensations of their breath as they inhale and exhale. You can do this too, at any time:
- Try slowing your own breathing and noticing where in your body you feel your breath the most strongly. Focus on taking slow, even, full breaths.
- For a few minutes, notice the sensations that occur, and how they change as you breathe in and out.
- If you become distracted, simply note that your mind has stopped attending to your breath, and then return your attention to the sensations of breathing.
In doing this last part, you train your ability to notice when your mind has wandered off task, and to reorient yourself to the task at hand. In redirecting your attention in a gentle, nonjudgmental way, you also develop your ability to be an observer of your experience without the unneeded ‘colour commentary’ that we often add to our experiences.
Practise mindfulness to improve your ability to observe things as they are, without adding extra meaning or weight to a difficult experience such as a loss. This will create additional ‘choice points’, where you can choose behaviours that allow you to pursue desired outcomes rather than shutting down in the face of a perceived failure.
Grant yourself the compassion you’d show a teammate or friend
Self-esteem is partly dependent on comparison: how I feel about myself is connected to how I stack up against you. Winning and losing readily provide ‘objective’ data about how you compare with the competition. If you rely too much on these results to dictate how you feel, it stands to reason that you would fear losing. Self-compassion, in contrast, does not rely on comparison. Self-compassion teaches that, by virtue of being human, you are worthy of the same caring and kindness that you offer others.
Unfortunately, many of us speak to ourselves much more harshly and judgmentally than we would ever speak to a peer. Losing is already a difficult experience; if you heap additional criticism and shame on yourself, you are doing yourself a disservice. Many competitors cruelly punish themselves for a perceived shortcoming with the intention of motivating themselves to do better. However, the impact is often that they end up feeling less motivated to reapproach the competitive task, and may need even longer to recover to their baseline.
I often teach athletes about self-compassion by asking them to identify a really embarrassing mistake that a less experienced athlete might make during a training session. When I once posed this scenario to a high-school basketball team, they responded with the example of someone completely missing the rim on a free throw. I asked the team to brainstorm how they would coach the athlete through this moment. The room buzzed with energy as they discussed how they could respond: ‘This happens to everybody’; ‘Take time to compose yourself next time’; ‘You got this,’ and more instructive comments such as ‘Focus on your follow-through.’ Then, I asked everyone to imagine that they had made the very same mistake. They shared some of the ways they talk to themselves: ‘You’re embarrassing yourself’; ‘You can’t do anything right’; ‘Good players don’t miss free throws like that.’
You’re likely recognising what the team recognised in that moment. If you were talking to a friend or teammate about their error, you would likely encourage them to keep striving, and to realise that they are not defined by their mistakes. We rarely offer ourselves the same grace.
The next time you experience a loss, try shifting your self-talk by asking yourself what you would say to a peer who was going through the same situation. Simply shifting your perspective in this way can allow you to think more creatively and helpfully, even while feeling the intense disappointment that can accompany a loss.
Self-compassion does not involve toxic positivity (‘Don’t think about it, everything is great’) or making excuses to feel better. Instead, self-compassion offers a way to respond to yourself after the sting of a setback and encourages you to keep moving forward. While many people believe that they need to be self-critical to achieve great things, research shows us this logic is flawed. Kindness, reminding yourself that you are human and make mistakes, and focusing on effectively ‘coaching’ yourself through the moment are more fruitful approaches.
Prioritise the most ‘workable’ thoughts about a loss
Mental chatter abounds in high-stakes situations, but not all our thoughts are helpful to us in performance. The same is true after a loss. And our minds certainly offer us lots of opinions:
I’m not good enough to play at this level.
I can’t believe I fell for that bluff; I shouldn’t have folded.
How could you possibly garble the lyrics to your own song? Embarrassing.
You don’t have to be a captive audience to everything your mind says. The high-performance psychologist Michael Gervais has a helpful analogy: do you answer your phone every time it rings, or do you screen certain calls? You can do the same thing mentally. You don’t have to ‘answer’ every thought your mind throws your way. In this case, ‘answering’ a thought would be giving the thought more attention and perhaps acting on the thought as if it was a truth. How do you know which thoughts to answer, though?
Workability is an ACT skill that helps to separate signal from noise. It involves asking: if I continue thinking this way, how will that work out for me? Will continuing to think this way help me? Instead of asking yourself whether a thought is true, you ask yourself whether it helps you in the current moment. For example, you might have a thought like: Everyone else is better at this than me. If you are a beginner, this thought could very well be true. However, does fixating on it serve you in any way? Probably not. Instead, you might ‘catch and release’ this unhelpful thought and select a more helpful one, such as: Everyone starts somewhere. By being mindful of your internal experiences (in this example, self-doubt and comparison) you can decide whether certain thoughts are going to help you move towards your desired outcome or not. Learning to ‘screen’ thoughts based on workability moves you a step closer to directing your attention in a way that serves you.
So how can you construct more workable thoughts after you’ve experienced a loss? Follow these tips: try to focus your thoughts on the present moment, on the task at hand (what you are trying to accomplish next), and on your process (what you can do to set yourself up to be successful now and in the future).
Imagine a tennis player who badly lost a previous match and is preparing to begin the next one. It’s not difficult to understand that a thought such as I can’t believe how terribly I played will not help this competitor; it is past-focused, self-defeating and discouraging. If the player can be mindful of these internal experiences, they can choose to shift their attention to thoughts that will work better in this moment. Workable thoughts might sound like:
That match doesn’t matter anymore. Back to my game plan, point by point. (Present-focused)
Return this first serve deep and cross court. (Task-focused)
Stick with your routine: breathe slowly and stay light on your feet to receive the serve. (Process-focused)
Carefully review what went wrong after a loss – and what went right
Following a losing performance, you have an opportunity to review and reflect on what transpired. However, many of us tend to focus on unhelpful things. High achievers in particular tend to struggle with this; sometimes we put so much emphasis on improving that (to our detriment) we allot most of our attention to our shortcomings. But if you give 90 per cent of your attention to the ways in which you have fallen short, your motivation, confidence and willingness to try new things will most likely take a hit. It is imperative to also direct your attention to what you have done well, what you want to replicate, and what your strengths are – especially when your last performance ended in a loss.
If you relate to the tendency to focus mostly on areas you need to ‘fix’, you may benefit from reviewing performances in a more structured way. One structured approach I use with clients is a version of an after-action review (AAR). Originally developed in a military context, AAR is designed to help a team effectively analyse the difference between the intended outcome and the actual outcome. It helps a team quickly understand what worked and what didn’t, and to disseminate the information to others. For the purposes of this article, the questions that form the basis for AAR can be used by individual competitors as well. They include:
- What did I hope to accomplish?
- What actually happened?
- What went wrong, and why did it go wrong?
- What went well, and why did it go well?
These prompts will help direct your recollections of your performance and mitigate the tendency to over-focus on any particular area. After a loss, give yourself the space to mindfully observe your reactions, and then write down your responses to these AAR prompts. Here’s an example of what this could look like:
A similar exercise – the ‘What Went Well’ practice – is borrowed from positive psychology; it was initially created to cultivate gratitude. However, I find that, in a performance context, it can be immensely helpful in developing confidence and balancing one’s appraisal of performances. You can do this exercise by taking five minutes to draw and fill out two columns on a piece of paper after a competition. On the left side, write down three things that went well, no matter how seemingly small. The more specific, the better. On the right side, next to each item, write down why that specific thing went well. Importantly, you want to make sure to identify internal reasons these things occurred (what you did to make it happen), rather than external reasons (you got lucky; your teammate kept finding you in great positions to score, etc). This exercise retrains you to attend to your strengths, and helps you to retain (or build) confidence when you face challenges.
As you review your performance, mindfully attune to the tone with which you speak to yourself. You have a chance to be either highly self-critical or to speak to yourself with compassion. I encourage you to try the latter and see how it affects your willingness to keep trying new things.
Focus on controlling the controllables
The brain is a problem-solving machine and, for many of us, it’s constantly on the lookout for future problems. Unfortunately, the brain is an overachiever; many of the scenarios it asks you to entertain will never come to pass, and it also tends to catastrophise setbacks and losses. Controlling the controllables means that you allow thoughts about things that are uncontrollable to pass, and you reserve your mental and physical energy for the areas in which you can make the greatest impact.
When you catch your brain offering unhelpful projections about the future, ask yourself what you can do about it in the present moment. If the answer is ‘nothing’, shift your attention back to something you can do. Practising the skill of controlling the controllables can also involve acknowledging that you aren’t in complete control over everything that happens during a competition (eg, your opponent, the environment, officiating, your teammates’ performances).
For example, after dropping a game to a conference opponent, many athletes might think about conference standings, how many more games they need to win, and which teams need to lose in order for them to have the best chance to make it to postseason play. Unless these mental gymnastics inform strategy for the very next practice or game, it is wasted energy! Controlling the controllables means you review your performance to learn what you can do better, and then you refocus on the next training session, the next competition, or the next competitor you will face.
When I was a freshman soccer player at Davidson College in North Carolina, there was a preseason goal-setting session in which we were asked to set a goal for our conference season record by identifying game-by-game which teams we thought we would beat. I recall thinking that this was a useless exercise; not only did I know nothing of these opponents but, on any given day, multiple factors would affect the final score of a game. Instead, we would have been much better served if we had focused on things within our control, such as pregame routines or how we would connect as a team after conceding a goal. In thinking about your next competition, try to mindfully observe your thoughts about it and discern which of the factors in your performance are actually within your control – and then put your energy there.
Key points – How to be a better loser
- Everyone loses sometimes, but you can choose how to respond. Whether you compete as an athlete, as a performing artist or in another domain, there are more and less adaptive ways to relate to losing.
- Losing is part of the process of growth. You can take cues from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) in accepting that pain and loss are essential to your journey as a competitor.
- Meet the pain of losing with mindfulness. Observing your internal experiences after a loss, without judgment, better prepares you to respond in helpful ways.
- Grant yourself the compassion you’d show a teammate or friend. Self-compassion isn’t simply about being nice to yourself; it can also improve your motivation as you come back from a loss.
- Prioritise the most ‘workable’ thoughts about a loss. Acknowledge when a thought is not serving you, and focus instead on the present moment, the task in front of you, and your process.
- Carefully review what went wrong after a loss – and what went right. Analyse your performance in a balanced manner rather than fixating on the negatives.
- Focus on controlling the controllables. Save your energy for working on the factors in your performance that you can directly affect.
Cultivating a focus on process rather than outcome
To be maximally resilient and to take setbacks and losses in your stride, it is imperative to focus not just on the outcome of a competition but on your process – which, as I indicated earlier, is how you set yourself up to achieve your ultimate goal, via practice and preparation. Let’s dig further into how you can cultivate a process focus. After a loss, you may find yourself getting stuck in heavy or negative thoughts and emotions. This is a natural part of being human; feeling disappointed (or even devastated) after a loss can reflect how much you care about your competitive endeavour. The key is to acknowledge what you feel without staying ‘stuck’ in those thoughts and feelings. In the What to Do section above, we discussed the importance of mindfully noticing what is happening within you after a loss. Another useful form of acknowledgment is to name or describe your internal experience: eg, I am feeling extremely frustrated that I wasn’t able to close out the game the way I wanted. Simply naming feelings and thoughts can reduce their intensity and help you return to a more even-keeled state. In a clearer mental space, you can begin to delve into your process, which transforms the disappointing outcome into lessons for future competitions.
Focusing on the process means focusing on the ways you prepare, your choices, and how you expend your energy. So, for example, instead of looking at your free-throw percentage, you would look at what factors contributed to missing more free-throws than you typically do (eg, Was I rushing? Did fatigue play a role? Did I stick to my routine?)
Here are a few general, process-related thoughts that build on the questions you might ask yourself as part of an after-action review:
- What areas do I need to address during practice/training this week based on where I struggled?
- Did I lose focus on the present moment and get stuck on the past or future? How can I return to the present more quickly next time?
- Did I miss some opportunities to leverage my strengths?
- Are there any additional ways I can prepare myself to be more competitive next time?
- What did I learn from this experience?
Focusing on your process is not glamorous. A process focus can even feel boring or monotonous at times. However, adopting this focus can help you guide your mental and physical energy back to those factors that are within your control. When you emerge from a loss, identify an important outcome that you hope to achieve in the near future, and ask yourself: What can I do today to move myself closer to achieving that goal? One of my favourite acronyms to guide focus back to the present is WIN (‘What’s important now?’) By answering these questions, and by focusing on your process, you give yourself a competitive advantage as you come back from a loss.
Links & books
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can be beneficial to us all; we don’t necessarily have to have a problem in order for things to work better. That being said, performers stand to benefit greatly from learning ACT techniques to cope with losses and setbacks. You can learn more about this psychotherapeutic approach at the website of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science.
Self-compassion is an increasingly popular concept in the world of sport psychology. If you’re a high-achieving competitor, you may benefit from taking the educational psychologist Kristin Neff’s quick online assessment to learn how you can develop in this area. If you’ve identified that you want to work on self-compassion, you can find further tips for doing so here.
If you’re curious to learn more about the after-action review – particularly in organisational or team contexts – the article ‘Learning in the Thick of It’ (2005) from the Harvard Business Review describes its origins and development.
The golf writer Sam Weiman’s book Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains (2016) contains many anecdotes of high-performing people in sport, politics, the arts and business who responded to losses in informative ways.