by Jenny Truman Sports Performance and Mental Skills Coach
“I don’t know what to do – the pain of losing”
Gazza cried, Novotna sobbed into the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder and Faldo commiserated with Norman after his infamous choke at the 1996 Masters : He said “I don’t know what to say .. I just want to give you a hug” The two men then began to cry
Losing is tough. Forget the well intentioned ‘it’s the taking part that counts’. That doesn’t cut it when you are a professional sports person or competitive amateur. What do you do when you lose? is it is a sea of dark and gut wrenching thoughts of “why did I” “if only I had’ ?There is a better way : read on.
That annoying cliché ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’
It is the last thing you want to hear when you see that hard earned prize falling from your grasp. It’s not something I would glibly say to my clients when they are winded with disappointment either. But there is a half truth there. Losing can make you stronger BUT only when you respond to it in the right way. If you don’t, losing not only set up heavy negative beliefs but it can put you off the sport completely. But when responded to in the right way, losing can improve your game and your mental approach.
But please note Note – this strategy is something for after the competition. Before the competition , the focus is on performing well not thinking about losing!
Do you hate to lose or are you frightened to lose
Hating to lose will motivate you to practise more. Fearing to lose will harm your performance and eventually your sanity.
If we are not careful the desire to win is over shadowed by the relief we didn’t lose. Some sports people I have coached have said their overriding feeling in the past when they won a competition was relief that they didn’t lose. This is when the joy goes out of sport .
Boris Becker said “to play as if your life were to end at the end of a match if you lost , with no morning after … is devastating” This thinking took it’s toll on him so how did he shake it off. Easy – he changed his attitude towards losing
Focus on the process not the prize.
This is where the sports psychology mantra “focus on the process not the prize” comes in :
The advice from 3 times Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh was
“we thought very little about the prize. It’s all about performance and improvement – enhancing our skills.”
As Psychiatrist Dr. Tim O’Brien said “If you are over focused on winning then you are focused on the wrong thing…you will be more successful if you pay attention to controlling what you can control.” (from The Inner Voice)
This is why I nag my clients to death – the only three things that matter : performance, performance, performance. Improve your performance and the results will look after themselves!
That punch in the stomach
We fee l it physically as well as mentally particularly when we have devoted so much time and energy to pursuing the challenge.
If as a coach, you brush it off too quickly with a “better luck next time” the sports person may think “you haven’t got a clue what it’s like out there” Or even worse “why the hell did you play like that “ This is a sure fire way to damage confidence and belief. Be sure to empathise with the coachee and see it through their eyes before taking the next step forward.
It is so important that these feelings of failure are not internalised with the athlete thinking “I feel a failure so I must be one”. The performance may have failed but that never means the person has. They just have not won YET
The best response to losing
With a post match strategy, the losing becomes part of the learning experience. This takes out the emotional heat.
What the Post Match strategy does.
We feel less stressed when we have a routine or a strategy. Without one there is a big open door to let in negative thoughts and fears. If we aren’t careful, these can spiral into negative beliefs of the am not good enough” variety .
It ditches the losing mentality. Disappointment, frustration, anger is a normal initial response. but the post match enables the sports person to move from the ‘helpless state’ into the ‘constructive’ mind set. Because it
1 Reduces the fear of failure in the future
2 Losses are less likely to be internalised and turn into negative beliefs
3 Quicker recovery
4 Improve performances by learning
5 Happier and less anxious because of the solution mindset
6 The positive parts are reinforced so the skills improve
7 Improves practice planning – solution mind set again
8 Brings set backs into perspective.
The Solution Focus
I have developed the above strategy from sports psychology and executive coaching principles. Moving away from “why didn’t it work” to “how I am going to make it work next time” takes us from helpless ‘out of control’ state (miserable) to the learning and ‘in control’ mind set. (optimistic) This is empowers people as it acknowledges the hurt but deals with it in a constructive way.
And when you win ……
One thing that most elite sports people have in common is they reflect on what they did well – and how they can do this more in the future, It’s a simple concept but often over looked.
Take legendary keeper Gianluigi Buffon who is preparing to retire after arguably the best keeper’s career ever. He said this recently.
“I’m always looking to perfect the things I know how to do…maybe right now I know how to do a certain thing well enough to score an eight, eight and a half, nine out of ten. I want to make it to a 10.”
How to do the post match strategy
Follow these 7 easy steps – best written in your practice journal /diary
1. What went well . Things before the competition, the preparation and during. There are no limits. From the days running up to it to the day itself and AFTER the match/event. Note them down and come up with a solution how you are going to do more of these –repeat – and if they are at a 9 like the Buffon example above, how are you are going to raise them to a 10.
2. The Positives . Note down the positives of the game. This can be anything you like eg recovering from losing positions during the game. You can be pleased with your performance regardless of the result. This is similar to 1. and often overlaps.
3. What will I do differently. Review the things you would do differently next time if there are any. Write down how you are going to work on this. It is your action plan for making the changes.
4. The action plan . What you are going to work on. This is where the loss becomes an advantage in your long term sporting career. This is why competitions are so valuable as you can learn so much from them in high pressure conditions.
5. Visualise the changes . This visualisation step is used by Hap Davis team psychologist for the Canadian National Swimming Team. Visualise your next performance with the changes set out at point 3 and 4 having being implemented. i.e. Things you are going to do differently next time. For example if they felt they swam poorly because their stroke was too short, they would visualise the next race with them winning and with a longer swimming stroke.
6. Perspective : Put the result into perspective by doing this quick and easy exercise. How will this day feel when you look back in 12 months’ time. How does this competition fit into the many competitions in your career. If your career is represented by a jigsaw puzzle , this particular competition is just a tiny piece.
7. How can you do more of the good stuff. Reflect on what you did well.
If it is good enough for Gianluigi it is good enough for you. Work out how you can do more of the good things you have done and make those 9s into 10s. Have a plan for how you are going to achive this. . Because of the tendency for negative thoughts to over- power the positives then it helps to note down the positives too.
The final words of wisdom from Jack Nicklaus ;
‘People have no idea how many times you have to finish 2nd in order to finish first’