THROUGHOUT SPORTING history, we the spectators, have witnessed jaw-dropping moments of greatness, but we’ve also been privy to some absolutely shocking losses. What brings about this shock-factor is the anticipation that the “greater” or more well-known athlete or team will have certain dominance over their competitor, but the unpredictability of human performance can sometimes sway in favour of the “underdog”.
Our most recent example of this is FC Sherrif Tiraspol’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League. Such a victory left the 13-time European champions and their fans stunned. While much of the commentary and chatter will focus on the win and the overflowing positive emotions of the FC Sheriff players, there is much to be discussed on those athletes who are dealing with the psychology and physical response to losing.
Oftentimes, the culture of coping with losing that is promoted is one that shies away from acknowledging and leaning-in to loss…it’s a matter of “toughening up and moving on”, or hiding the tears and the emotional experience of loss for the sake of “being a good sport”. But is this way of thinking really more helpful or harmful in the long run?
We must first understand that the expression of emotions and how we cope after losing is a very unique physical and mental experience to each athlete and indeed is managed differently from individual to individual or team to team. Losing is not only that immense emotional experience, disappointment and blow to the ego and confidence but stimulates a physiological response within the body as well…This includes stomach pains, changes to your blood pressure, muscular tension and constriction of blood flow, impairment of decision making, elevated stress, reduced testosterone, dopamine deprival and the list goes on. It’s safe to say that losing really does hurt.
There is no right or wrong way to express oneself after a losing performance and indeed it doesn’t make one athlete better over another…but the “recovery culture” that is fostered and learned is what does.
It is important to note that this culture and practice does not begin when athletes enter the high-performance arena but indeed starts from the very moment they begin to move and play.
So, what is “good practice” when it comes to loss? For coaches and parents, particularly of young and developmental athletes, we can experience the tragedy of a loss as much as they do but it’s important for us to self-regulate and not place our emotions and disappointment on them. Similarly, we must not begin to point out all the areas they went wrong during the performance. We can also sometimes go to the other extreme and diminish their emotions or try to compensate with compliments.
Phrases such as “don’t cry”, “be strong”, “it doesn’t matter” and “you did great today”, can oftentimes contradict and invalidate an athlete’s mental experience and instil a habit of avoiding or dismissing negative feelings. While in the short-term this may stop the tears, as the athlete continues to grow and develop it can lead to poor practices of self-talk, extreme fluctuations in confidence and self-belief and exacerbate experiences of disappointment as the competitive stakes become greater.
Instead of trying to find something to say right away, we might take our cue from the athlete themselves: such as facial expressions, body language, tears etcetera. Allow time and space for them to sit with their emotions. Once a conversation is prompted we might try to identify something positive that was achieved during the performance and begin a discussion around what was learned from the experience.
We might use the 3,2,1 approach: (3) things that went well, (2) things that I need to improve on and (1) lesson I will take into the next performance.
The “pain” of losing might always remain but the approach that we encourage athletes to take in learning from their mistakes, ways to improve the next time and identifying things they did well even in a losing performance can certainly aid in resiliency development and continual progression.
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