It never feels good to have a bad race. You performed poorly and you naturally feel bad. It’s normal to experience negative emotions in reaction to results that don’t live up to your expectations. But the specific negative emotion you experience has a big influence on how that subpar performance affects you. I have found that athletes can have one of two emotional reactions to unsatisfactory results: disappointment or devastation.
No one likes to be disappointed. You feel sad and defeated. Your heart aches for the opportunity lost and the goal not achieved. Certainly, disappointment is not a pleasant emotion; it feels really bad, in fact. But that doesn’t mean it is a bad emotion to be avoided at all costs. On the contrary, disappointment is actually a healthy and beneficial emotion that plays an essential role in the pursuit of your athletic goals.
Though we all know what disappointment feels like, many of us don’t really know what causes it. So, let’s take a look. Disappointment is an emotional reaction to a failure of a situation, specifically in this case a situation in which you perform poorly or have an unexpected loss in competition. Disappointment occurs when you are unable to fulfill some hope, goal, or expectation. It involves feelings of thwarted desire and loss.
In fact, disappointment is hard-wired into us to help when we are confronted by failure. It actually girds your resolve and mobilizes your resources to do better in the future. What is your natural reaction to disappointment? If you’re like most triathletes, then after a brief period of discouragement, your disappointment morphs into determination and a drive to overcome the situation and to prevent it from happening again.
When you experience disappointment after a poor performance, you should let yourself feel the emotion fully, even if it doesn’t feel good. In other words, let yourself feel bad rather than trying to placate, assuage, or distract yourself from the disappointment. Allowing yourself to feel the disappointment in all its power will then enable you to turn that emotional energy toward the future and to motivate you so you don’t feel that disappointment again. Then, your newfound understanding of your disappointment will also take some of the sting out and make it easier to use as a positive force in your athletic efforts.
After a poor result, you will naturally feel a brief period of letdown, but then you must pick yourself up and get back on the horse, that is, get back to pursuing their athletic goals with renewed determination and intensity. By putting the disappointment behind you and directing your focus to the present and the future, you can experience a better feeling in response to failure and find new ways to overcome your setbacks and return to your path toward your goals.
Rather than this disappointment disheartening you and causing you to feel bad about yourself, you can use the experience to affirm your capabilities by showing yourself that you can conquer your failures and your disappointment. As difficult as it may seem, you want to view disappointment as training for adulthood (because you’re going to experience plenty of disappointment as a grown-up!). You want to accept the failure and disappointment as an inevitable and unavoidable part of life and what matters is how you react to it.
“Your success is measured by the strength of your desire; the size of your dream; and how you handle disappointment along the way.” Robert Kiyosaki, businessman
Unfortunately, some athletes will perceive poor performances not as disappointments that are relatively minor and temporary setbacks, but rather as devastating assaults on who they are and what they are capable of. This occurs because—unlike disappointment, which is seen as a failure of a situation—devastation is experienced as a perceived failure of self, meaning the failure is felt as a direct reflection on themselves as athletes and people.
Devastation in response to a discouraging performance is experienced when athletes are overly invested in their sport. In other words, how they perform in their sport is too connected to their evaluation of their value and worth as athletes and people. Devastation is a truly harmful emotions that not only hurts future performance, but is also overwhelmingly painful. It can last for days, weeks, months, or even years after the unsatisfying performance (depending on how important the failure was—for example, a poor result at the Olympics could last for a very long time).
What makes devastation such a destructive emotion is the natural reaction you can have after. This reaction, unlike disappointment, actually increases the likelihood of more failure and more devastation in the future. Devastation is, in fact, a general emotional state that is comprised of veritable plethora of awful emotions that can include pain, embarrassment, humiliation, shame, fear, grief, dejection, despair, jealousy, pity, bitterness, loneliness, and self-hate. Now that is one very depressing list of emotions!
This tsunami of hurtful emotions doesn’t just make triathletes feel really, really bad. It also does damage to their motivation and confidence—they plummet—and causes them to feel incompetent and inadequate as both triathletes and people. These reactions then have the effect of killing their passion for our sport and their determination and drive to overcome the poor performance. These triathletes are hit so hard by a substandard performance that they just want to flee from the painful experience they are confronted with. They withdraw socially, mope around, look deflated, and feel sorry for themselves for far longer than they should. The problem with this type of reaction to failure is that you automatically lose, not just in terms of results, but in terms of your enjoyment of our sport—in other words, the reason why you do triathlons! Yes, poor performances and unsatisfying results can take the wind out of your sails, but it shouldn’t be that painful.
Experiencing devastation should be a big red flag for you. It should tell you that you are excessively invested in your triathlon life and need to reduce your investment in our sport to a healthier level. Not an easy task, but it starts with putting triathlon in perspective. Remember that triathlon should be an affirming part of your life, not life itself. Any setbacks or failures you experience should no longer be a mortal threat to your self-identity, self-esteem, or goals. As a result, they will only cause you to feel disappointment rather than devastation. As you make this shift, you will also be able to increase your resilience, motivation, and confidence. Finally, you will perform much better, have more fun, and once again be able to experience the passion, pride, inspiration, and joy which are the real payoff for doing triathlon.
Do you want to take the next step in training your mind to perform your best in training and on race day? Here are five options for you: