Stages of Recovering from a Poor Performance
The athlete looks like a savage, they’re moving incredibly well, smashing every lift, smashing every throw, running fast, whatever the sport may be, they are 100% in peak condition. They are moving with precision and aggression, all of the technical reps have paid off, all of their reps meditating and focusing on internal improvement seem to have created a perfect bridge between the aggressive world and the technical world. They have been eating well, sleeping well, doing more mobility/yoga than ever before. They are in tune with their performance, their body, maybe even in tune with the Greek gods, they seem to be moving so well. Deep down inside, the coach knows they are about to show the world what the fu$k is up!
But they don’t. It’s one of the first times this individual cracked. They don’t show up on the big stage. Everything was lined up for an incredible performance, a performance that would have taken the world by storm. What the hell happened? How were they unable to demonstrate their capability? This is something that just freaking happens. In sports in general, it’s important to recognize that shit literally just happens. The athlete did an incredible job, the coach did a great job but shit still just happens.
There always seems to be a distinct chain of events that occurs in response to a poor performance. By analyzing the chain of events and recognizing the consistent response, athletes can prevent negative responses and make more progress moving forward.
“I never lose. I either win or learn.” - Nelson Mandela
1. Frustration and Anger Toward Self
“I screwed up. I screwed up. I can’t believe I freaking screwed up.”
Some of the worst experiences I have had as a coach tend to revolve around the perfect peak scenario. Everything was lined up, myself and the athlete were on the same page and they were ready to smash everything. But they didn’t. This stuff happens. At the exact moment, they are about to burst onto the scene, the athlete breaks. They break in every way possible, tears streaming down their face, they are embarrassed, they feel as though they have let me down, let themselves down, let their friends down, let down everyone. Their head is within their hands and they don’t know how to handle anything. They hide from their teammates, they don’t want to talk or even express anything about their current state. It ends up being a complete and utter stage of individual frustration and anger toward the self. These emotions are normal and although it’s incredibly hard to embrace them, they simply need to be expressed. This is high-performance sport, shit happens, express emotions and try to continue moving forward.
2. Depression and Misery
“This fu*$ing sucks.”
After frustration and anger toward the self expressed, the next step is clear depression and misery. This period could last 2-3 days, 2-3 weeks or even months. It’s important to recognize these emotions. Understand it is normal. Thousands of hours have been put into executing training, the time has been put into meditation, technical understanding, nutrition, etc...the effort was incredible, the performance wasn’t great but some days shit freaking happens. Handling depression appropriately, understanding what mechanisms can improve depression and misery becomes even more important. This is where being introspective and understanding the emotional response becomes important. Continuing to meditate, continuing to be mindful, continuing to embrace the negative emotions, understand them and understand your personal response to those feelings. Attempt to stay focused on your end goals while handling the depression of your perceived failure. At the end of the journey, you will look back and recognize that the “failure” is entirely based around your personal perception. It’s important to try to recognize that these lessons of failure are simply that, they are lessons and tests to continuously improve your personal processes around your athletic career.
3. Creating External Blame
“I think coach screwed up by not giving me that one cue that would have gotten me to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.”
Frustration has passed, depression is still floating around in the back of the athlete’s mind and quickly that frustration turns into external blame. This is also normal. As a coach, I have learned these stages pretty regularly. Maybe not regularly but at least to the point of understanding the thought process each athlete takes as they continue their recovery through their endeavors. As coaches, it’s important to recognize what is happening and allow words to be expressed and understand it is simply part of the process. The length of the external blame period is very dependent upon the individual. Some athletes may blame fellow competitors, some athletes may blame prior coaches and some athletes will blame their own coaches. Losing sucks, not competing to expectation sucks and remembering the quote, “misery loves company” becomes very important. Understand that this is just a residual effect caused by poor performance.
The athlete needs to let the emotions roll, let them continue to flow, the sooner they are expressed, the quicker optimal healing will take place. The coach needs to have a Taoist approach. Take a step back, listen to the athlete, provide support, listen again, provide more support and educate them on what the next process is. Athletes are simply looking for answers and that’s why blame is placed externally because they are struggling to find the answer themselves. Why is that? Because sometimes, SHIT HAPPENS.
4. Low Motivation
“I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to train. I don’t even know what I want in life.”
The next step is based around second-guessing everything. If they dealt with anger, depression, external blame, why would they want to continue on their athletic journey? This journey is responsible for some of the worst emotions they have held in their entire life. They have spent the last 3-6 months of their life, focused on one goal, building toward one competition that could culminate in quite possibly the greatest emotional response of their life and instead it leads to demise. This induces a training coma. It transforms into their training. They don’t want to warm up, they don’t want to listen to the coach, they don’t want to make changes, it didn’t work for them before so why would it continue?
The coach needs to provide as much positive support during this period BUT they also need to gently give a small kick in the butt to the athlete. The experience may have been miserable but as for training, the athlete needs to keep trudging through the frustration. Come to training, get the work done and continue to push forward. This is where life lessons come into play. There is no OFF button in life. When you have a family, there is no time to stop working, there is no way to stop paying the bills, life continues with or without you! This is the exact same in athletics. If the individual can continue training it is key, they need to continue showing up, the effort might be low but there is still an effort and eventually, the approach will change.
5. The Training Epiphany
“Holy shit. I need to get my head out of my ass and take advantage of the situation I have!”
Some might call this the come-to-Jesus experience (not an actual religious experience). This is when athletes realize they need to stop playing the victim game. They start to understand they are actually in a good situation, they are athletes doing something fun! One day they wake up and a switch is flipped, maybe it was during their meditation, maybe during a drive to the gym and a song came on that they associated with during their younger years, maybe they realize it’s time to move on and start embracing the next step of the healing process! Often times this can even be experienced while they are watching motivational speakers or listening to someone else who has dealt with a similar situation. They begin to feel empathy toward someone else's story and that empathy reverses into a greater analysis of their own situation and leads to an intense turnaround! Occasionally, this may even be during a random training session. They feel aggression or happiness that they have not felt in a while, all of a sudden they feel the emotion and original reason behind why they even started the sport in the beginning and they embrace that emotion!
The coach needs to recognize when this happens and approach the situation carefully. Don’t press too hard, the athlete is fragile but it is important to capitalize on what is going on. Gradually start to push them, force their training to be SLIGHTLY more intense, start to see how they are responding to criticism and how they are handling the pressure. Finally, force a pointed discussion. Get them to sit down and review their competition, force them to analyze where they went wrong and where they succeeded and get them to learn about the long term learning process to becoming a champion!
6. The crossroads...business as usual or newfound accountability?
“I am going to change. I am going to be better long term, I am going to train as well as I possibly can all the time!”
The crossroads is a very important point for both the athlete and the coach. The coach needs to recognize when it is happening. It’s still a fragile point in the athlete’s emotional response. This is where having a strong team and a strong community can be incredibly beneficial. By knowing when the “crossroads” are being approached, the coach can guide the athlete to make impressive changes to their process. Even if they did everything perfectly leading up to their last competition, there is always SOMETHING that can be improved upon. Is it sleep, nutrition, mobility, visualization, mindfulness, strength work, technical work? Are they gossiping and bullshitting during training? This is the point that a structured plan with a clear cut improvement needs to be presented to the athlete.
The discussion about long term imprinted progress is my favorite conversation to hold with all of my athletes. Laying out a blueprint to follow and execute is fun and enjoyable. Making comparisons to other athletes makes it easier to empathize for the athlete who is in their final stage of recovery. Do they want to approach training and preparation the next season like Tom Brady? Do they want to embrace their inner Jordan Burroughs? Do they want to keep making progress as an individual and continue to improve their planning and recovery or would they prefer to be stagnant and stay within the holding pattern of their career?
This is the point where the athlete needs to be held accountable every single day to make greater strides in their preparation. When there is a positive team setting that is grounded within the same ideals and motives, the team will help the individual in recovery to get out of their negative mindset and cultivate long term positive with a structured plan.
Jordan Burroughs is my ideal for all of my athletes. He is an individual who won the 2012 Olympic title in freestyle wrestling, he won multiple world titles and then went to the 2016 Olympics and lost his first two matches. He was done. He was a loser. He couldn’t defend his Olympic title. Or so everyone thought! He came back in 2017 and won the world title! He refocused, he regrouped, lasered in on his priorities in training and worked his way back to the top of the podium. These are lessons all athletes can build upon. There are distinct stages of failure, these stages are all based around emotions. Through analysis and proper approach, every individual can pull themselves out of the Dundrum of a frustrating performance. By weathering the storm and working through each sequence, the individual can eventually put themselves back on track with a greater sense of accountability!
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