HOW DO ATHLETES MANAGE THEIR EMOTIONS DURING SUCCESS OR FAILURE? | Aparna Sharma | Consulting Editor | The People Management

ATHLETESIt’s been said that there’s nothing worse than finishing fourth at the Olympics. And we have seen this very recently during Olympics 2021 in Golf for India.

For many, falling short at the Olympics present some of the most difficult emotional experiences of their careers.

When athletes experience failures and setbacks, not only are they often harsh and self-critical, but there can be other consequences, such as loss of funding and support systems.

Even the fear of experiencing failures and setbacks can prevent athletes from delivering their best performances when they are needed the most.

As they say, “Success has many Fathers, Failure None.” When the athlete succeeds, like the Gold, Silver, Bronze wins; there is a flurry of activity around the family, background etc. of the athlete. Suddenly, the athlete becomes a STAR & everyone tries to associate with the player. While this is momentary…it also carries on for a while.

If we look around, this is true for any sport and even our professional arena. We pray to the RISING SUN! The only watch-out here is that Success should not get into the head & make the athlete arrogant.

Finding resources that athletes can use to help them navigate through difficult emotional experiences — whether they occur before, during or after an event like the Olympics — is essential to their success.

Learning Self-Compassion

One such resource for the athletes’ toolbox might be Self-Compassion.

Being self-compassionate means athletes recognize that they are experiencing an emotionally difficult time and want to do something to help themselves through it.

Research suggests self-compassion can be a useful resource to deal with failures and setbacks if athletes can treat themselves kindly rather than be harsh and self-critical, are able to balance their thoughts and emotions and recognize that other competitors experience similar hardships.

Two other commonly used “Self” terms in sport are Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem.

Self-Confidence typically refers to athletes’ general beliefs that they can be successful. Self-Esteem refers to an overall evaluation of self-worth. Self-confidence and Self-esteem are often linked — if athletes feel competent in sports, that competence can be an important part of high self-esteem.

On the other hand, being self-compassionate does not require feelings of competence or worth. It simply requires the recognition of suffering and a desire to help yourself through that suffering.

Sport psychology researchers and practitioners are also increasingly exploring ways to teach athletes to be self-compassionate.

One such exercise with respect to self-compassion is where athletes are asked to write a note to themselves expressing understanding, kindness and concern in the same way they would talk to a friend experiencing the same situation. Based on a study, Athletes who took part in the study reported a significant increase in self-compassion, as well as significant decrease in concerns over mistakes, rumination and self-criticism.

If you speak to sportspersons, the types of failures and setbacks they often report include feeling responsible for a team loss, injury, failing to meet personal goals and expectations, making errors, social comparison and performance plateaus.

Emotional Safety

Rather than reacting to these types of challenges with harsh self-criticism, self-compassion offers a resource that allows athletes the emotional safety and mental strength to deal with these potentially negative experiences in a healthy and effective way.

You might be wondering as to WHEN self-compassion is useful for athletes — before, during or after the competition.

Intervention work with athletes has typically encouraged them to recall a setback they recently experienced in sports and to respond to that situation with self-compassion.

With female athletes, they have explained it may also be useful to be self-compassionate during a setback — such as when they make mistakes in competition and in the immediate moment of realizing that they are being harshly self-critical.

A number of self-compassion practices, including guided meditations, writing activities and other exercises, have been developed. Many of these practices teach athletes how to be kind towards themselves through increasing awareness of their current thoughts and changing inner dialogues by reframing a self-critical voice in a way that is more positive and friendly.

Beyond Self-Esteem

While still in its relative infancy, there is a growing body of research that shows self-compassion is clearly relevant to the lives of athletes and has benefits beyond self-esteem.

Athletes with greater levels of self-compassion have greater autonomy (the freedom to make and act on one’s own choices) and body appreciation, as well as lower reported levels of fear of failure, shame and negative self-evaluation. Self-compassion also seems to increase an athlete’s perseverance and decrease passivity when they face failures and setbacks.

One of the biggest challenges to athletes becoming more self-compassionate in the face of failures and setbacks might actually be their resistance to it.

Female athletes have expressed hesitation about being too self-compassionate for fear of becoming complacent or passive in the pursuit of their sporting goals. Male athletes in particular might face threats to their masculinity by taking a self-compassionate approach to the sport.

The evidence to date, both within and outside of sport, would suggest athletes’ concerns about being self-compassionate are likely not warranted. For many athletes who will inevitably encounter failures and setbacks, embracing self-compassion might be a vital part of a positive and successful Olympic experience.

It is important to stay grounded, be humble & remain balanced when one WINS & equally equanimous during FAILURE, whether in sports, one’s profession and even in personal life!