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How to Overcome Failure in Sport (Even When You Feel Like Giving Up)

Failing hurts. Sometimes, we feel we’ve done everything we can, and we still don’t hit the mark. At best it makes us feel bad for the rest of the day, and at worst, we think about giving up for good.

Failing sucks, but it’s also an inherent part of being an athlete, especially if your desire is not to come second, but to win. If you want to be the very best athlete you can be, then you have to master how you deal with failure.

To practice endlessly refining your skills and getting your physical condition to its peak and then failing can be the hardest thing to deal with. For some, it’s devastating. This is where the difference between the good and the great is most clearly illustrated: how they deal with failure.

So, how can you learn to overcome failure and keep going? How can you ensure you learn from your failures, and not let them tear you down each time?


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5 Ways to Overcome Failure as an Athlete

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Minimize It

It’s not productive to pretend a competition is meaningless simply because you didn’t win, but you also shouldn’t tear yourself down either. You need to find the middle ground between, “I didn’t care about that anyway,” and “I’ve just missed my only big shot.” Learn your lessons from what happened, wallow for a day or two if you need to, and then pick yourself up and keep your eyes on the prize.

2. Remember Failure is a Part of Sport (and Life)

Remember failure is part of sport. For someone to win, someone has to fail. You don’t share gold medals, championships, cups, and pennants except with your teammates. For every Super Bowl winner, 31 other teams lost. That’s how sport works; you’d better get used to it or it will destroy you before you get there.

Tom Brady is as good a quarterback as there has ever been, perhaps the best. He led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl victories, winning MVP four times. A fantastic record. Yet he spent 20 seasons with the Patriots, so you could argue he lost 14 times. Do you think losing made him mad? I bet it did, but every time he picked himself up and got on with the job. When we talk about him, no one says, “Tom Brady, 14-time Superbowl Loser.” Shift your relationship with failure by replacing, “Why is this happening to me?” with a more constructive approach such as, “What can I learn from this?”

3. Set Your Own Goals

Winning is important – of course, but it’s not always everything. If you set your own goals to achieve, then you can strive to succeed on your own terms. That way, even if you don’t win, you have succeeded if you reached your own goals. This can be just as satisfying as a win, and will help ensure you have that sense of progress, no matter what.

4. Have Self-Belief

There are many athletes that are superb, yet don’t quite have what it takes to reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport. One thing that unites the truly great is complete self-belief. They have to hold on to this supreme confidence no matter what the circumstances; there are always plenty of critics that will try to undermine that faith.

The boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, is often cited as an example of self-belief and indeed had an unshakable confidence in what he could do. This showed itself clearly in the ring, where in many fights, he seemed to use that inner-strength to become almost superhuman. But it was his self-confidence that enabled him to pick himself up after a defeat and return for the next fight with no doubts he could win. Losing to Joe Frazier in 1971 set him back but did not dent his self-belief. Three years later, he knocked out George Foreman in Kinshasa to regain the world title. Remember that (as Winston Churchill said), “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

5. Use Failure to Make You Stronger & Remember There is Always Room for Improvement

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, probably wasn’t a sports fan, but it was he who is quoted as saying: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” (More recently, we can all think of the Kanye West song Stronger which uses the same sentiment.) That applies to failure. When you fail to meet your own expectations, use that experience as a spur to improve yourself and your performance.

Everyone has setbacks; you must learn to use them as motivations to succeed. We all fail more often than we win, so it is those who understand this, ask for more of themselves and take the crown next time around. To return to Serena Williams for a moment, she once said that she hated losing more than she loved winning: “If anything, you know, I think losing makes me feel even more motivated.”

Remember that there’s always room for improvement. You can always be better. Only you decide when you’ve reached your pinnacle.

6. Understand Your Limitations

To build on the last point, sometimes you may need to come to terms with the fact that you have limitations that will prevent you from going the distance. Maybe you are passionate about pursuing another career. Maybe you have an injury that changes the course of your life, or puts you behind.

Yes, you want to perform to your best, but perhaps that has to be your best, not the best in the world. That’s why track and field athletes place such importance on personal bests. Getting a PB shows you are improving, and you can’t really do better than beating your previous time or distance.

Even if your sports experience is limited to playing weekend tennis, find comfort in serving a little better or succeeding with that top-spin lob. Try to win, certainly, but don’t let losing spoil your day. Hall of Fame coach, John Wooden, expands upon this in his statement, “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

If you play sports, you will fail – often, even. The important thing is not to dwell on it. Stay positive, use the loss as a tool for improvement and stay true to yourself and your aims. No great athlete allows themselves to be deflected from their path by failure. They accept it, learn from it and move on. This is just as true if you are a starter for the Boston Bruins or a pitcher on your high school softball team.

Losing is inevitable. One of the great things about sports is that there is always a winner and a loser. You always have the opportunity to win, so set goals that will mean something to you, whether or not you win the first place prize.


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