Most of the time, training in sports is geared towards winning. However, even the best Olympic competitors, like swimmer Michael Phelps and cyclist Mark Cavendish, are still vulnerable to defeat. Today, there are already some experts who believe that gearing up for defeat would help avert athletes from severe disappointment. For this year’s London Olympics, there are about 10,500 competitors, but only 302 will win. All the rest will have to look disappointment in the eye and deal with the anger and humiliation that comes with losing.
“Losing is often overlooked. Winning is celebrated but the pain of loss is very significant,” says sports physician Jordan Metzl of the Sports Medicine Institute of Young Athletes in New York. “The shame and pressure of losing is a very strong emotion that athletes deal with for their entire careers.”
Most athletes will be able to cope with losing in a healthy way by using their frustrations to achieve a higher goal. But for others, it may result to depression. For the past 12 years, it has always been the dominant belief that in order to win, one must not doubt that it will indeed happen. For some, a single loss has caused permanent emotional problems for them.
Experts like Metzl still stand by the principle that focusing on winning is an integral part of sports psychology. For them, it may not be possible to convince an athlete to think otherwise. But recently, many psychologists who are involved at the Olympic level have taken another approach. Peter Haberl, a senior psychologist on Team USA who takes charge of the mental health of its top Olympians, believes that thinking about defeat is unavoidable. His approach is based on the work of psychologist Daniel M. Wenger which demonstrates thought suppression through the white bear experiment. Wenger proved that if you instruct a person to avoid thinking of an arbitrary thought, like a white bear, the bear will repeatedly pop into their thoughts.
“The more you avoid a certain thought the more it is likely to surface,” says Haberl. “I would encourage the athlete to confront issues head on, to understand that losing and winning are both part of the athlete experience.”
If Haberl discerns that an athlete is suppressing or avoiding the thought of defeat, he will steer their conversation so that they will then be able to talk about it openly. Haberl will work with athletes and help them deal with defeat and failure after the Olympic Games, especially those who will experience unexpected or crushing failure.
“Most athletes do lose, it’s normal to be disappointed,” Haberl says. “It’s not normal to be depressed three months later.”
Should athletes be trained to prepare for defeat? Do you condition yourself to accept failure in situations where you are pressured or expected to just win? Share your thoughts and opinions with us!
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