Dealing with Success and Failure

Winning and losing. Often it seems like that’s all there is. Results are read out in assembly, posted on websites and in newsletters, “the U14A’s won 5-2”. But we all know that there’s more to it than that. We tend to value some victories more than others, and even some defeats more than some victories. We intuitively understand that results aren’t always the best measures of success in sport. Yet somehow we still place so much emphasis on them.

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This is one of the most important lessons for successful athletes to understand. The criteria you use to determine whether you played well or not, needs to be independent of the result of a match. Sport psychology theory describes people who focus exclusively on results as having an outcome orientation to performance. In contrast, often the most successful athletes have what is called, a process orientation to performance. These athletes prioritise the small processes required to succeed, identifying core skills, both mental and technical that they need to execute in order to perform well. A tennis player might focus on achieving a certain percentage of successful first serves, a golfer on the number of fairways hit. Whether they win or lose, these athletes judge their performance on a criteria of key processes. These criteria are independent of factors such as the quality of the opposition, or the effectiveness of the umpire or referee.

Athletes and teams with an outcome orientation tend to respond poorly to failure. They become despondent, losing motivation and belief, often allowing the outcome of the competition to impact on their self-esteem. In contrast, athletes with a process orientation often have a mindset that Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has termed a growth mindset. These players see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. Players with a fixed mindset tend to have an outcome orientation, and interpret results as a reflection of their ability. These athletes will often shy away from challenging situations where there is a chance of failure, concerned about what a negative result might say about their level of ability. A growth-mindset allows athletes to seek out challenging situations and to evaluate performances on criteria such as the amount of effort put in. These athletes don’t see themselves as failures, they are merely “not yet successful”. Carol Dweck’s research has shown that people who believe their talent, or ability, is fixed are more likely to give up easily. While those athletes who have a growth mindset are more likely to be resilient when faced with failure, and more successful overall.

So take the time to look at your game and resist the temptation from society, from our friends and from our parents to evaluate yourself based on the outcome of your matches. Instead examine how well, or poorly, you performed in the key processes of your sport. Being honest with yourself here will indicate areas that you can improve on, and highlight your strengths. Use losses as opportunities to learn and successes as evidence of your hard work and effort. Those times when you might be experiencing a run of bad form are the most useful times of your career, they help to shine a spotlight on areas for growth, and in the end make you a better player.

- Mike McInerney

Mike is a Counselling Psychologist and Sport Pyschology Expert who works with individual athletes and sports teams. You can contact him here, read more of his articles or browse through some of the clients he has worked with.