One of the toughest psychological challenges for any athlete, is to find the poise and the resilience to come back the next game and play at a high level after a bad loss. During a lot of tournament play, a team will have multiple games in a day. Think of times when you may have lost a morning game and then been asked to come back for the afternoon game to play your best to maybe finish 3rdplace in the tournament. It is very tough to process the last game, let it go, and reset to play with a fresh mindset.
There are some steps you and your teammates can follow to help you move through the period of regret, remorse, and disappointment. Here are some:
See wins and losses as learning opportunities rather than fixed markers of your ability.
Every game even the last game of the season is hardly ever the end of your career. Even if you do play the last game of your career, you will most likely have fond memories with your teammates and the experiences in training and competition that will set you up to continue to grow the rest of your life. It is important to understand that even though you compete in a results driven sport, those results should not define your ability nor set a limit to your potential as a performer. You must find a way to continue to progress even when the worst results happen. Develop a growth mindset by reframing the outcome as an opportunity.
Set a time limit to how long you will think about the last game.
Every athlete is a person. People experience emotional responses to negative outcomes, especially when they invest all of their effort and energy into the game. The time limit you hold yourself and your teammates accountable to should be calculated with the amount of time you have between games or in the day. If it’s a night game, you might find it challenging to fall asleep if your mind is ruminating over the circumstances of the game and your play. Set up to a 2-hour time limit and by the end of the time follow the system described next to evaluate your play.
Evaluate your play using the 3,2,1 system.
After you have just sat with the results and reflected on the game, follow this intentional process that helps you find a way to improve. The details of your play matter the most in this system. Start with 3 highlights of things you did well in the game such as “establishing and holding position on specific possessions” or “after mistakes using my breathing consistently to play this play”.Next limit yourself to only 2 lowlights from your play in the game such as “missed the near side on a key shot block” or “didn’t use my focus cues when losing emotional control”.Finally, use a combination of the highlights and lowlights to develop 1 area to improve in your next practice or game. When you create your area for improvement, you will essentially develop a process oriented goal that details what you want to work on and how you will execute it.
These steps will help you learn how to move through an intentional performance improvement plan. Training the mind should be an intentional practice with deliberate emphasis on developing performance enhancing habits. If you are having trouble with these steps alone, ask a teammate, coach, or parent to share their perspective so that you can gain more ideas. Make them your own and take ownership of your performance journey.
Brian Alexander is a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and former USA water polo national team athlete who works with athletes of all ages and levels on aspects of the mental game. Please contact Brian for one on one or team mental skills sessions.