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Failure is the one certain event that we will all have to face, other than death, at some point in our lives. If you never experience failure then you have not applied yourself to a task of a big enough challenge to truly measure yourself. However, there seems to be two types of people when it comes to failure; those who fail and accept defeat, and those who fail then rally back stronger.

What is it that creates this divide between the two groups after failure? It has long been acknowledged that psychology is a major factor in how you cope with failure. However, more specifically than “psychology”, what are the major mindsets that cause these two groups to either thrive or die post failure?

In 2003, Krumm et al, conducted a study titled “Explanatory Style and Resilience After Sports Failure”. Building upon work carried out by a scientist called Peterson and his colleagues, Krumm et al (2003), looked at the relationship between optimistic mindsets and pessimistic mindsets and the way in which they reacted to failure.

The findings of their work indicated that optimistic people processed failure by attributing the lack of goal completion towards factors that were temporary in time (i.e. “it was too hot at that time for a good performance” or “I tripped up so got a slower time”) where as pessimistic people attributed their failure to systematic intrinsic variables that were a lot harder to change (i.e. “it is because I am rubbish” or “I failed because I am not fit enough to play”).

Krumm et al (2003) argues that the optimistic response allows the participant to process the failure in such a way that meant the next time they attempted the challenge they would almost certainly improve due to the fact their short term variable wouldn’t repeat itself. The study indeed showed that optimistic participants, when told they had failed, would actually see an increase in performance time. However, due to pessimists putting their failure down to long term variables their performance stayed the same, after failure, as their first attempt. This was attributable to the fact that they were unable to change the variable they had associated the failure to in the short time between retaking the test.

Infograph displaying Effects of Failure on Differing MindsetsHow to use this as an athlete…

Firstly, it is important as an athlete to monitor thought processes. A pessimistic mindset can be an indicator to the start of depression and can easily be turned around by adopting a more positive approach. When something goes wrong stop yourself from thinking that there is some integral part of you that is inhibiting you and realise it is was just a momentary lapse caused by something out of your control.

Attributing you losses to short term events, that are unlikely to repeat, should improve both your outlook and your ability to recover after failure.

How to Use this as a Coach…

Although no research has been carried out on this, it would be interesting to see whether or not an intervention from a coach when an athlete fails could help the recovery. For example you know an athlete is slightly pessimistic and when they encounter failure you interject with a reason that was beyond their control; “Don’t worry buddy it was a bad bounce, not your fault”. This could then almost force the athlete to adopt an optimistic mindset, removing any self-blame, and able to pick up with an increased performance. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts as coaches on this intervention. Do you use it already? Has this helped?

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