Poor Performance in Sport – How to Cope

In sport as in life there are times when we don’t deliver our best when called on to do so. At the elite level, a poor performance in sport is when you or your team are 1% off your best. This contributes to an unwanted result combined with the feeling of letting yourself or others down. It is important to note, that occasionally we produce a poor performance relative to our potential capability, yet still manage to win. But this type of scenario can also produce feelings associated with a loss.

Poor Performance in Sport

At some stage, most of us associated with sport must come to terms with a performance which leaves us, at best, feeling emotionally drained. The significance of the event where the performance took place also has an important impact. At worst we may feel completely devastated by the material outcome of our sub-par performance. The quality that defines many champions is their ability to manage disappointment and to successfully recover to once again be in a position where they can produce their best, and be proud of a 100% performance, even if this means performing in another chapter in their life beyond sport.

Written for athletes and Coaches, this article explores the emotional aspect of a poor performance and result which occurs at the most important time of the season (for example the World Championships or Finals).

Emotional Investment

Most athletes and Coaches I have worked with who compete on a global stage at the highest possible level see their ‘job’ as more than just work which delivers material income. These people, who aspire to be consistently at their best, understand that being 0.05% less than their potential capability means a non-winning outcome. They therefore devote more than just time and energy to ensure their performance is up to their personal standards. These people give their whole self to the cause of creating an exceptional performance. Giving of your whole self is a complete investment of all you have to give. Those in sport at this level know exactly what I am referring to here. I have worked with employees in business organisations who believe a 70% effort investment is enough for success over their peers. Athletes at the highest possible level often believe only a 100% investment of energy results in success over their peers (and the greatest possible outcome).

The level of emotion attached to whether you win or not is directly proportional to the investment of yourself. Naturally when an athlete or Coach invests their entire self into their sport, a poor end of season performance equates to a massive feeling of ‘loss’. It equates to a ‘lost’ opportunity, one which you would never have the opportunity for again. It’s dealing with never again being able to play or race at pinnacle events such as the Olympics or Grand Finals and this can often be the most challenging concept to deal with. I know it was for me.

Managing the feeling of loss is critical in order to ‘move on’ with your life. This can mean transitioning into a new life post sport, or returning to set a new goal in your sport for the upcoming season. Either way, managing the feeling of loss means recognizing the emotions associated with it and how to move forward to an emotional state where you can be ready to be your best.

Emotional Stages of Loss

Below is a model used in many environments and situations to understand the emotional stages people experience whenever they have an associated feeling of loss. This model was first used to help people understand the grieving process when a loved one passes on. I feel this is a useful model to use as a Coach. Coaches are the ones best positioned to help their athletes after a loss. However, in order for Coaches to assist their athletes, they must also understand their own emotions. These emotions will be equal to or greater than their athlete’s emotions post loss. The below model outlines the stages one may go through when coping with a poor performance and feeling of loss.

7 Stages of Grief

(Modified Kubler-Ross Model)

Shock< Initial paralysis at hearing the bad news.

Denial< Trying to avoid the inevitable.

Anger< Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up-emotion.

Bargaining< Seeking in vain for a way out.

Depression< Final realization of the inevitable.

Testing< Seeking realistic solutions

Acceptance< Finally finding the way forward.

Notice the model’s axis measures the level of self-esteem and how this changes over time after a loss. The degree to which an athlete or Coach may experience the above emotions depends on the level of meaning and importance they placed on the recent loss. The time taken for a person to progress through the stages is also unique to each individual. Some may move relatively fast through each stage compared to another individual who may get stuck at certain stages or even regress through stages.

Stage 1: Shock

This feeling of shock is experienced when the poor performance comes as a complete surprise. Often a team shows no ‘apparent’ signs that a sub-par performance is about to occur. All associated with the performance are literally shocked by what has just occurred.

Stage 2: Denial

After the shock, you may hear the athletes or even the Coach saying they cannot believe this has just happened, to the point where they are momentarily in denial about the outcome as if it is a bad dream. The thing about sport is that the results obtained are anchors of reality, and therefore this stage and feeling do not last long. Reality kicks in, and when the athlete(s) or Coach see the medal ceremony occurring without them, or their results on paper, the feeling of denial is often replaced by new feelings of fear or anger.

Stage 3: Fear or Anger

At this stage, the people associated with the sub-par performance may look back in a clouded hindsight seeking scapegoats and reasons for the loss. Blame may begin to surface as prior events and happenings are looked at in a different light. What at the time may have appeared to not be a big issue is now looked upon as a potential contribution to the poor outcome. This can lead to resentment when certain people in the team or associated with the performance have been identified as a reason for the loss. Alternatively, athletes or coaches can become angry at themselves for the loss. This may occur even though a realistic look back at their preparation or actual performance shows they did what they could and gave their best effort at the time.

Stage 4: Depression

When there is ‘no tomorrow’ in terms of a next performance, in some cases a feeling of total loss emerges, as the opportunity to compete again has ended. When this scenario occurs, athletes and coaches can become depressed to varying degrees. If this is the case, appropriate support must be given by way of a professional counselor or sport psychologist to aid the individual to come to terms with their reality.

Stage 5: Understanding

This emotion occurs when the athlete(s) or coaches begin to realistically examine their performance, putting the pieces together to establish causes of the poor performance. This is where formal reviews are critical to find the real answers. This leads to understanding that, for example, certain areas of the preparation could have been improved on or done differently. The findings can be potential learning experiences, even for others not associated with the actual performance.

Stage 6: Acceptance

Acceptance is never about becoming satisfied with a poor performance. Acceptance is about literally accepting it happened, taking responsibility for the outcome and getting ready to move forward in life.

There is often a feeling of disappointment associated with acceptance. Disappointment is an emotion based in the past, meaning one cannot change the outcome no matter what they do. It is ok to feel disappointed about certain aspects of one’s sporting career. Rarely does an athlete or Coach ever complete their career feeling completely satisfied that none of their results could have been better.

Disappointment is very different to the feeling of frustration. An athlete or Coach should not feel frustrated at this stage, as frustration indicates they still feel as though the results or outcome could be altered. Frustration is an ‘in the moment’ emotion and when one feels this emotion they are still in the position to do something about the result.

Stage 7: Exploration

In most cases, the exploration stage closely follows the understanding and acceptance stage. This is when a Coach or athlete looks for opportunities to improve on their performance for the next event. If this was the final opportunity, they may begin thinking about the lessons they have learnt from the experience and how this will help them in their future endeavors.

Stage 8: Moving on

At this stage, the feelings an athlete or Coach has about the sub-par performance are behind them. When they think about the performance, they view it in past tense, as history, as something that happened which they were able to learn from. They have ultimately come to terms with the performance. Hence, the athlete or Coach is in a position to move forward with their life.

In Summary

There are some key points to remember about using this model and understanding the stages. What is absolutely critical, and a mistake I see coaches and athletes often committing when coping with a loss, is attempting to force themselves too quickly through the stages. An example of this is a Coach immediately suggesting after a poor performance that the athletes put the performance out of their mind. To forget it happened, and to get over it. Whilst this approach is understandable, as it is not pleasant to experience the range of negative emotions associated with the loss, trying to push someone through to the stage of moving on is actually just postponing the inevitable. The athlete is likely to experience all the associated feelings of the loss at a later time, often when there is no support available and they must search for meaning on their own. This can be a very difficult situation for the individual who does not know why they still feel these negative emotions.

Another point to remember is that everyone goes through these stages, some at a different pace to others. There is no right or wrong, and people should be allowed to move at their own pace. It is also worthwhile to keep in mind that regression backwards through the stages is possible.

In summary, understanding these stages helps you as a Coach to monitor and support your athletes. Additionally, you will be better equipped to help yourself through these stages knowing that what you may be feeling is normal for anyone coping with a loss.

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