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Handling Performance Setbacks

Errors and mistakes in sport tend to produce a variety of reactions among athletes. These reactions include the good (trying to learn from them and using them as motivating factors), the bad (thinking superstitiously about them), and the ugly (losing emotional control and allowing the setback to affect your performance).

The successful tennis coach, Brad Gilbert, coined the phrase “winning ugly” to describe the strategy of grinding out results by doing what you have to do in order to secure a victory. From this, Kremer and Moran (2008) coined the term “losing ugly”… Losing ugly is the worst way of reacting to errors and mistakes because it regards them as highly personal signs of inescapable failure in the future. By contrast, a more helpful way to look at setbacks is to regard them as temporary outcomes of a set of circumstances that can change and ultimately aid learning. Viewing failure as a form of feedback indicates that we can do something about it. This attitude promotes the courage to fail and to push beyond our comfort zone, which is necessary if progress and improvement are to be made.

Below are some practical tips on reframing your setbacks:

  1. It is important to acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes, particularly within a sporting context, and that this is just another aspect of sport. Making mistakes will never be a pleasant experience but without them, we fail to learn.

  2. Try to learn from your mistakes – do not ignore them. If you try to ignore your mistakes, they will not simply go away because the mistakes are habits that will resurface if not corrected.

  3. Following every game or competition, keep a log of one thing you were proud of and one mistake you made. By identifying patterns in your mistakes over time, you will be able to seek advice from coaches and support staff about how to best work towards reducing the frequency of these.

  4. Try to put your disappointments in perspective. In a year’s time, you probably won’t even remember why you were so upset about the mistake.

  5. Stop torturing yourself about what might have been. Wishful or ‘counterfactual’ thinking cannot change anything.

  6. Ask yourself what aspects of the setback are due to factors that are within your control and can be changed in the near future. It is important to focus your attention to these controllable aspects rather than those that we have no influence over.

  7. Try to identify at least one good thing (e.g. a lesson learned such as a change in perspective or a resolve to work harder) that happened as a result of your setback.

  8. Try to learn from the way in which other people handle setbacks, especially athletes performing at the top in your chosen sport. Listen to their post-match/competition interviews to see how they make sense of the mistakes they may have made or how they are planning to approach their next period of training.

  9. Ask yourself what advice you would give someone else who made a similar mistake to yours. It is surprising how objective we can be when we are looking at other people’s problems.

“Unless you’re prepared to make mistakes and put your head on the line, you’re going to get nothing and it’ll be worth nothing… You will have many mistakes and failures and the higher up you get, the more magnified those failures will be. But they’re all worth it in the end because when the good days come, they’re made all the better by the memory of those mistakes and failures… If you’re looking for average, then try not to make mistakes but if you’re looking to be great, you’ve got to make loads of mistakes.” – Padraig Harrington.