How to cope with Losing

'How to cope with the pain of losing with the post game strategy    

Jenny Truman Sports Performance and Mental Skills Coach

Gazza cried,  Novotna sobbed into the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder and Faldo commiserated with Norman after his heart wrenchingloss at the 1996 Masters :  “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’  Well read on.  

In this article you will learn how to  take the sting out of losing and turn the negative feelings into positives.  By developing a Post Game Strategy you improve  performance and state of mind!  You can move on from the hopeless mindset  more quickly.  

The half truth of ‘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 it is useful when seen in the context that losing can make you stronger when you respond to it in the right way.   If you don’t, losing can set up some tricky negative beliefs.  So ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger but only when you deal with it properly’

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.

As George C Scott said in the movie Patton“We love a winner and hate a loser. They loathe the very thought of losing”    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 until he changed his attitude towards losing

Preparing a better attitude

  This is where the “focus on the process not the prize” comes in : the ideal focus laid down by sports psychology.

Bill Walsh was a 3 time Super bowl winner – his winning advice 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 sports clients that only three things  matter : performance, performance, performance.    Improve your performance and the results will look after themselves!

Understanding the feelings of loss

Losing can be like a punch in the stomach. . We fee l it physically as well as mentally particularly when we have devoted so much time, energy and expense to pursuing the challenge.

If as a coach you brush it off too quickly with a “better luck next time” there may be unresolved negative emotions kicking around and /orthe athlete will be left thinking “they don’t understand” and lose faith in you.  Be sure to empathise with the athlete 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. 

Coping with Losing

With a routine post match strategy,  the losing becomes part of the sporting experience. This takes out the emotional heat.   It doesn’t feel so bad when we acknowledge that it is how we improve and we have a plan to deal with it.

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 “I am not good enough” variety .

This is why I like to speak to my clients a few days after the competition.   If they win then we look at preserving and using the positive good elements of the performance.  If they lose then it is a case of having a chat and following my response strategy.

What the Post Game strategy does.

 Disappointment, frustration, anger is a normal initial response but the earlier the strategy begins, the less time there is to feel helpless and out of control.

The benefits of having a Post Game Strategy are

1         Reduces the fear of failure in the future

2        Losses less likely to turn  into negative beliefs

3        Quicker recovery

4        Improve performances by learning

5        Happier and less anxious.   The ‘failure is not internalised’

6        Makes use of the positives – so that these are re-inforced

7        Improves practice planning

8        Brings the result into perspective                                                                                                                                                                              I have developed this strategy from  sports psychology and executive coaching principles.  Going 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 to the learning and ‘in control’ mindset. This is the solution focus approach.   This is empowers people  as it doesn’t deny the existence of distress  but deals with it in a constructive way.


The Post Game Strategy In Practice

As I ask all of my clients to keep Practice Books and Journals, the strategy will be entered into one of these. If you don’t do this then make a habit of writing the following down: after you have calmed down. 

It would come under the heading of Post Game Strategy .

1.        Pick out from the competition day the things that went well.  This includes any time up to the match – the preparation, practice, days running up to it, the day itself. 


  1.  Note down the positives of the game.  This can be anything you like eg recovering from losing positions during the game.  You may be pleased with your performance regardless of the result.


  1. 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.*


  1.  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.


  1. The 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     Put the resultinto perspective by doing this.  How will the loss feel when you look back in 12 months time.   How does this competition fit into the many competitions in your career.    Ifyour career is represented by a jigsaw puzzle , this particular competitionis just a tiny piece.



Good results

The Post Game Strategy  is just as important for good results.  Because of the tendency for negative thoughts to over power the positives then it helps  to note down the positives too.   Recognising and replicating the good parts of the performances is something which sometimes is over looked and this is a lost opportunity.

Follow all of the steps 1 – 4– noting all the good things down – and what you want to replicate.  Remember that the point of the strategy  is to learn and improve . 



 As Jack Nicklaus said ‘people have no idea how many times you have to finish 2nd in order to finish first '


Keep going !