By Dr. Alan Goldberg
Staying positive in a losing game can be difficult in our current sports culture where so much emphasis is placed on the WIN rather than on enjoying the game or improving your skills. Even if you have the best intentions of being positive no matter what, coaches, parents, teammates, and fans in the stands can put a lot of pressure on you and let their disappointment be known (loudly) when you make a mistake. This sort of intimidation can really throw you off your game early on into the match, and diminish your chances of bouncing back and regaining your concentration.
The best advice I can give in these situations is DON’T LISTEN TO ANYONE. If the negativity is coming from anyone outside of yourself then simply let it roll of your back, tune it out, and keep your head in the game. THEY are not YOU and it’s not your job to worry about their satisfaction while you’re focusing on performing at your best.
Do you know how many times players have started off slow or made errors early on in their performance and then were able to turn it around and surprise everyone at the end? Countless! It’s always possible, and it’s part of the drama that makes sports exciting.
Ok, now what if the negativity is coming from inside you? Let’s say you came into the game with confidence and enthusiasm but your opponent or opposing team is just better, stronger, faster, etc.? You start to get frustrated, lose your focus, your mind races with negative thoughts, and you don’t even want to keep going because you know you’re not going to win.
If that happens, here’s what I recommend:
1. Switch your focus away from the outcome.
Why are you here? If it’s only for the glory of winning then you might as well never play again because losing is just a natural part of sports, period. YOU ARE GOING TO LOSE. Say it with me, “I AM GOING TO LOSE SOMETIMES.” The quicker you understand this the quicker you’ll be able to connect with the true heart of what you’re doing. So why are you here, doing this and playing this game, or performing in this sport? I would imagine it’s because you just love it, it’s fun and challenging, and pushes you to new heights physically, mentally, and emotionally. Well, if that’s the case then there’s no reason that can’t happen when you’re losing! If you take the end goal of winning for the sake of winning off the table then you are left with fun, stretching your skills, and learning about what you can work on to improve next time. When you put it that way then losing sounds like another form of winning to me!
2. Concentrate on the action, not your thoughts.
A very common occurrence in the midst of a losing performance is negative thoughts like “how could I have messed up like that!” “I suck at this, I should just quit right now,” or “I’ll never be as good as him/her.” These thoughts don’t just stay in your mind, they cause your muscles to tighten, your attention to move away from the action, and are very likely to hurt your performance even further than if you just made a mistake and quickly rebounded by staying connected with what’s happening around you. So if that happens, just brush those thoughts aside in the moment and bring your attention back to your breathing, to the position of the ball or the beam, to staying alert and ready to move your body wherever it needs to go. Tell yourself that if you really want to, you’ll have time to think later, but for now just stay in the game. The mental energy you’re NOT WASTING on negative thoughts can instead be applied to your performance and help you close the margin of loss, even if you still don’t win.
3. Practice more.
Athletes who take practice seriously, challenge themselves to continually improve, and accept good coaching will always perform better than those who don’t. If the reason you find yourself on the losing side is due to a lack of preparedness or insufficient practice then take this loss as valuable motivation to reinvest yourself in practice. Maybe you need to practice more often, maybe it’s a matter of improving your concentration, or maybe it’s time to get a better trainer who is more aligned with your vision and goals. Rather than dwelling on the loss of this performance, use it to create a new game plan for how you’ll maximize your practice time going forward. One note here though: NEVER push yourself harder than your body is ready to stretch, never play or practice through injuries, and always take good care of yourself.
As a Sports Performance Consultant and internationally-known expert in peak sports performance, Dr. Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic caliber right down to junior competitors. Dr. Goldberg specializes in helping athletes overcome sports fears & blocks, snap out of slumps, and perform to their potential. He is the Director of Competitive Advantage, an Amherst, Massachusetts-based performance consulting firm. Dr. Goldberg maintains an extensive Skype consultation service for athletes around the world to more quickly and effectively get athletes unstuck and back on track. For more information, visit https://www.competitivedge.com/.