Have you ever reached match point, tasted victory on your tongue, even imagined a celebration in your mind? Yet the moment never came. Instead, all you could do was watch it slip away in horror, helplessly.
These can be some of the toughest losses to experience. How do you come back from a heartbreaking loss? People will often tell you, “forget the match, it’s not the end of the world.” At least that’s something I’ve personally heard a thousand times. And all I want to do is scream at them in frustration. I know they’re only trying to help, to put the situation into context. But no matter how minute a sports loss is in the grand scheme of the universe, sometimes it really does feel that way. Like the end of the world in that moment. Which is okay to feel, it really is. Think about it. You poured your blood, sweat, and tears into this. As athletes, we dedicate every fiber of our being into perfecting this very specific craft. It becomes almost larger than life itself. We always want to see our efforts pay off, but there’s never a 100% guarantee that you’ll win because the person on the other side of that table wants it just as much as you do. And that’s just sport.
So, feel it. Once the initial shock wears off, feel your feelings, scream into your pillow, cry, whatever helps in the moment to release those feelings. These reactions are normal – it just means you care. Disregard those who may tell you to “just get over it.” The absolute worst thing you can do is to suppress and bury those feelings as if nothing happened. That doesn’t mean they’re not still there. They sit silently, insidiously, at the back of your mind, just waiting for their moment to strike again. The macho mindset of indifference will almost certainly guarantee another “choke” in the future because you haven’t let yourself process and learn from the past.
After you’ve let yourself feel, reframing your mindset becomes just as essential. There is a fine line between allowing yourself to feel and negatively ruminating on the past. Rumination happens when you continuously engage in a repetitive negative thought process, creating a destructive cycle or pattern that becomes increasingly hard to stop. This can range from thoughts of “why am I so bad, that was the stupidest decision, I’ll never be able to beat this opponent.” The repetition of these thoughts ends up hardening our neural pathways and beliefs of ourselves, which can then easily lead to a fixed mindset. A mindset that allows us to believe our mistakes are inherent and unchangeable.
So instead of participating in a negative thought process that limits our abilities, let’s move forward with a growth mindset. Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck emphasizes the importance of a growth mindset in her renowned book, Mindset. This means that your intellect, abilities, and talents can always be developed and improved upon with time and effort. Think, “this loss is not a ‘failure’ but rather an opportunity to help me grow.”
Finally, when you’ve started to heal the anger, frustration, disappointment, or whatever you might have felt from the loss, it might be worth it to revisit the game/match in an objective lens with either yourself or a coach to learn from and plan next steps. Focus on what worked and what didn’t work in the match and create a game plan for the future. Study the techniques, the strategies of both you and your opponent’s. Hone your strengths, identify what skills need improvement, and then head back to the table and focus on those details. You’ve already done the hard part. Now being able to take a step back and analyze the match is just the cherry on top.
Remember that losses are inevitable in this game. You may lose again in the future. Actually, scratch that. You will lose again. Even GOATs of each of their respective sport can tell you about countless disappointing and heartbreaking losses. As cliché as it sounds, it’s not the loss or failure that matters. It’s how we channel our resiliency, how we learn and grow, and how we bounce back stronger than ever.