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."

An unexpected 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.

2. 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 each other.

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 are controllable.

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.

So, after 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

Human Kinetics Moran, Aidan P., (1996). The Psychology of Concentration in Sport Performers-A Cognitive Analysis. Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis. UK



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 1990.


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