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Meeting Failure and Defeat with Self-Compassion

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Anyone who has participated in sports at any level is familiar with feelings and thoughts of inadequacy, uncertainty, failure, and defeat. Some even argue that losing is a prerequisite to winning. So while all athletes have these difficult experiences that follow losses, mistakes, or disappointments, they don’t all react to them in the same way. One athlete’s justification for quitting is another athlete’s motivation to train harder. What makes the difference?

It seems that the athletes who get stuck in their failures and disappointments lack self-compassion. (I know—sounds soft. This is when the “psychology expert” tries to convince athletes to go easy and open up to their feelings and blah, blah, blah…but bear with me!) As the late great coach John Wooden once said, “There is nothing stronger than gentleness.” Relating to our thoughts, feelings, and painful sensations with a self-compassionate stance requires courage. It means letting go of the storylines about how things should be and instead trusting the unfolding journey of sports as it occurs.

A leading researcher on self-compassion, Dr. Kristen Neff, acknowledges three elements of self-compassion: self-kindness versus self-judgment, common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus over-identification. We can think of these elements in relation to sport in the following ways:

  • Self-kindness versus self-judgment. Have you ever tried to catch a ball without adjusting to its speed? If so, maybe you’ve heard the suggestion, “You gotta give!” The same is true of our difficult experiences—sometimes we need to give and adjust. Rigidity in the face of disappointment typically leads to more disappointment. Trust me, the judgments are going to be there, but they don’t need to stay there. By accepting difficult thoughts and feelings as a part of playing sports and by bringing kindness to our experiences, the judgments are able to pass.

  • Common humanity versus isolation. You messed up…I messed up…We messed up. Welcome to being human! Vulnerability is fundamental to our species, whether we like it or not. At times, it is excruciatingly tough to be vulnerable. Some losses on the field resemble the feelings of heartbreak. Look around and notice that your teammates may be experiencing similar emotions. Or, take a moment to notice how your opponents may be feeling when YOU are victorious. We’ve all been there. None of us liked it.

  • Mindfulness versus over-identification. When you are stuck in unproductive thoughts or feelings, you may be confusing the event with your identity. If you experience or notice the thought or feeling, then how can you BE the thought or feeling? The “you” is the observer and not the event, despite how ridiculously easy and tempting it can be to identify so closely to your experiences that you lose sight of that space between. (Check out one of Dr. Mike Gross’ previous blog posts to learn more about mindfulness.)

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that any of us attempt to change the content of our thoughts or to blindly dismiss our mistakes. I know that’s silly and likely impossible. It wouldn’t work. Furthermore, I don’t advise judging whether being stuck is bad or good, or wrong or right. It may just be where you are in that moment. With the wisdom and practice of self-compassion, you can choose to let go and move on when that’s what’s needed. Contemplating and reflecting on our mistakes and disappointments can definitely be helpful at times (like I said—losing may be a prerequisite for winning). It is adaptive to stay with the thoughts and feelings when we relate to them in a way that promotes growth and enhances motivation. Here are some suggestions for practicing a self-compassionate stance:

  • Press pause. Take a moment to pause and notice your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. You may also notice judgments about what you are experiencing, and even judgments about the judgments you are experiencing (and maybe judgments about those judgments!). It is okay. By bringing awareness to your noticing of these experiences, you can remember that you do not need to define yourself by events that happen, even when those events were consequences of your actions. It can be helpful to press pause when you feel stuck or when you are in the midst of a major disappointment.

  • Invite curiosity and appreciation. Remember that bit above about common humanity? Millions of athletes can relate to how you’re feeling at any given moment. By playing sports, you are participating in what is arguably one of the most amazing and universally shared activities of being human. Try to bring curiosity and appreciation to all of the experiences that arise when you are engaging in an activity that is so important to you and so many others.

  • Develop post-practice and post-competition routines. Many people practice pre-competition rituals, but their post-competition behavior is dictated by the mood that follows the events that transpired. Maybe you can feel however you are feeling after a practice or competition AND choose to act in ways that are meaningful to you. I call this a “flexibly consistent ritual.” Be consistent with some part of your post-practice or post-competition routine. Consider it a symbolic way to bring closure to what already happened so that you can attend to what is happening in the now. (And if you notice your mind is still stuck in what already happened, try forgiveness and press pause.)

  • Zoom-out. We can quickly lose perspective when our feelings are intense or our thoughts carry criticism. When your attention narrows, you may miss information about other important events and experiences related to the past, present, and future. Maybe you forget that you are a whole person, regardless of how well you performed in your sport. Remember that the loss, mistake, or disappointment is just one event among countless other events that represent your lifetime. If you could view your life as a roadmap, you would see that there are many, many losses and victories along the way.

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