Tips on Dealing With Competition Loss
As a society, we don’t like losing. We exaggerate any loss—however insignificant—as a monumental disaster. But losing can teach us much more than winning.
The trouble is, losing feels so awfully lonely.
At a competition, the winners all gather together on the winner’s podium for pictures. In the UFC, the winner gets the spotlight and is lavished with praise during a post-fight interview.
Since there’s so much focus on the winners, we don’t realize that EVERY SINGLE UFC fight has just as many losers as winners. For every fighter who gets their hand raised at the end of the fight, there’s another fighter who walks out of the ring practically unnoticed.
And in competitions, there are even more losers. While three winners get to bask in the limelight, there are just as many—if not more—losers who are anonymously drifting around the arena.
The truth is, we’re all going to lose. At some point, we’ll have an off-day. Or we’ll run up against a better competitor. Or we’ll start to slow down because of age. We have to accept that harsh fact.
But we don’t need to feel alone when we lose.
We have plenty of company. In fact, losing is more of a default condition in any competition. Most Olympic athletes go home without medals. Most marathon runners cross the finish line with little or no fanfare.
The first step in handling a loss is realizing that you are not alone. Whether you are the competitor or part of an athlete’s support team, the best way to handle a loss is to recognize that everyone has had the same unhappy experience.
If you are in a situation where you have to console an athlete who just suffered a defeat, it’s important to remind them of this reality. In their disappointment, athletes may be inclined to believe that they are alone in this experience. Remind them that this is not the case.
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This is also not the time to offer criticism. That’s for later—after emotions have cooled. If you start listing off mistakes right after a loss, that criticism is likely to fall on deaf ears. Even worse, a younger athlete might interpret your constructive criticism as blame. And they don’t need to feel like you’re blaming them; they’re already blaming themselves.
This is a problem that I’ve noticed is especially prevalent among parents of young athletes. Let me be blunt: If your instinct is to blame them, then YOU have a problem. It’s likely that you are too invested in your child’s life, and you need to step back.
On the other hand, when consoling an athlete, don’t dismiss their loss or their feelings about losing. Telling them, “It doesn’t really matter” will just make them feel even more alone because you don’t seem to understand their feelings.
You can’t dismiss the loss entirely, but you should help them put it in the proper perspective.
If your athlete made mistakes that led to their loss, those mistakes can—and should—be discussed, but at a later time. (And if you’re a parent, leave that job to their coach).
This is the time to find positives. If a younger athlete was a good sport, this is the time to praise that behavior. It takes a lot of maturity to handle losing with grace. Lots of adults have yet to master that skill.
This is the time to focus on improvements. Those improvements may not have led to victory—this time—but they are paving the way for future wins. If you saw some signs of improvement, point them out.
Remind yourself or your athlete that their training did pay dividends. That hard work may not have led to the medal podium. But it did result in an improvement of skills. Most likely, it not only improved those skills but gave those skills a significant jump forward.
Finally, compliment them on their courage. Because it takes courage to stick your neck out and test yourself against another athlete. No matter how their competition went, they showed the courage to show up instead of sitting on the couch doing nothing.
Later on, when you revisit the loss, focus on lessons learned. Look ahead to how problems can be solved next time. It is necessary to look back at the loss, but only to learn from it. Wallowing in remorse won’t change the past or increase your chances of winning next time.
Nothing will make losing easier. Perhaps nothing should make losing easier. Our aversion to loss can be a powerful motivator for future success. But whether you are the athlete or part of an athlete’s support team, keeping that loss in a realistic, healthy perspective is also essential. Without that healthy perspective, the temptation to give up may outweigh the desire for redemption.
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