STRATEGIES for DEALING WITH
UNEXPECTED POOR PERFORMANCE or LOSS
by Wei Bian, M. Ed.
At the 1996 summer Olympics, the USA women's volleyball team was expected
to win the gold medal at home. They had won the world Grand Prix Champion
in 1995. However, the final result of 7th place was very disappointing.
According to one of the players: "We didn't play like we can play,
and that's worse than playing great and still losing."
lose may lead to negative feelings, such as mild depression, frustration,
or self doubts regarding one's ability. What can athletes do when faced
with such difficulties? The following strategies may be helpful to maintain
a positive attitude that is necessary for continued motivation and effort.
1. View the poor performance as a lesson learned.
It is human to make mistakes. Even the greatest athletes sometimes
fall short of their goals. After a poor performance or loss, athletes
may initially feel disappointed in response to a poor performance or
a loss. However, if athletes do not view it as a personal disaster or
an indication of personal incompetence, a poor performance or a loss
can teach athletes a valuable lesson.
There is an old Chinese story
about winning and losing: one day, an old man lost his favorite horse
near the Great Wall. When people tried to comfort him, he said: Who
knows whether it is bad or good. Later, his horse returned accompanied
by another horse as well. In the Chinese written language, the crisis
is composed of two characters. The first one means dangerous and hurting,
while the other character means chance or possibility. Therefore, a
poor performance or a loss is not totally hopeless if athletes can learn
from it and view it as an opportunity for future improvement.
Identify aspects of the performance that are controllable.
When athletes expect to do well and do poorly instead, it is very
important to determine whether the reasons for the loss are controllable
or not. For example, two volleyball players were asked why they performed
so poorly. One player commented: we could not play well because we did
not play as a team and we made too many errors on serve reception. The
second player felt that the audiences were too loud and the opponents
were too strong. Only two of these four factors are directly under the
athlete's control. According to theory, effort and mental preparation
are factors that are controllable, while factors such as style or skill
level of the opponents; playing conditions or environment are things
that athletes can not control. It is obvious that service reception
techniques can be improved by daily practice and 6 players on the court
can work as one by setting common goals and obtaining a better understanding
Studies show that those athletes who view their effort
and performance as main contributions to their outcome can do better
in the future than those who attribute luck or other external factors
to a poor performance. So when examining the reasons for a poor performance
or an unexpected lose, attention should be focused on the factors that
3. Examine competition goals.
There are two types of goals in sport. One is focused on the outcome
or the result of the competition. To beat the opposing team or to win
a race are the examples of those goals. Studies in sport psychology
have indicated that setting outcome goals alone does not enhance motivation
or performance. Focusing only on the end product distracts the athlete's
attention from the task at hand. In addition, outcome goals are frequently
out of the athlete's direct control. Research indicates that athletes'
goals should be based on the process. Examples of process goals are
improving one's percentage of passing accuracy to a target or serving
the ball to a certain area of the opponent's court. Process oriented
goals are more effective, because they can help athletes to concentrate
on each play or action. Athletes know exactly what they need to do in
order to be successful without worrying about the outcome.
a poor performance or an unexpected loss, athletes need to determine
if their goals for the previous competition were properly set on the
performance. An old Chinese proverb states "A thousand miles' journey
depends on each single step." In other words, one by one process
goals can lead to a successful season.
In summary, an unexpected
poor performance or loss need not have a negative impact. Athletes who
apply proper strategies and draw positive things from such outcomes
will gain insight, control and motivation from the experience.
Gill, Diane L., (1986). Psychological Dynamics of
Sport. Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. Champaign, Illinois.
Goldberg, S. Alan., (1998). Sports Slump Busting: 10 Steps to Mental
Toughness and Peak Performance. Champaign, IL
Moran, Aidan P., (1996). The Psychology of Concentration in Sport
Performers-A Cognitive Analysis. Psychology Press, Taylor &
Wei Bian is currently a Master of Arts student
in Physical Education with a specialization in Sport Psychology at the University
of Northern Iowa and a member of the Sport Psychology Research Team. She is
a former volleyball player on one of the top teams in China. Her main interests
are on coaching volleyball and psychological training for athletes. Her Master's
thesis in China focused on the personality and court behavior of Chinese volleyball
setters. The thesis was published in the Journal of China Sports Science in