Failing Up: Recovering and Adjusting from Disappointing Results

Setting goals can be scary. Setting big goals can even be frightening. What if you don’t reach them? What if you encounter a setback? What if you’re not good enough? These what-ifs can cloud our judgment and decision processes. There are a thousand what-ifs that accompany any dream or goal we set. The reality of sport is that not all goals will be reached. The most important piece to recognize from this is the following: that is okay. 

So what do you do if your goal does not go to plan? How you respond to setbacks is what separates successful athletes from those that lose the pursuit of their dreams. 

Success is hardly ever linear. How to respond to your valleys of performance is just as important as how you respond to your peaks. Understanding how to learn and grow from setbacks will make you a stronger, more resilient athlete. 

Building Mental Fortitude

Working on your emotional and mental health is step one. You have just invested countless hours into your goal and it will take some time to overcome how you feel emotionally from a setback. It is okay if this takes a few days or weeks and depending upon the goal it can even take a few months. You have just spent large amounts of time with your brain in constant, “on,” mode. You need time in order to switch off. While it can be tempting to try to jump right back in, you’re angry, fired up, what to try again, but take some time to check in with how you are feeling mentally. 

Perhaps this is not your first time encountering a setback, do not be alarmed if you find that it takes a longer period of time for you to find your motivation and groove again. Remember that while many of us seem to have an endless well of resiliency if you do not replenish the water, the well can run dry. Take time to refill your mental tank before you set off on your next pursuit. During this time, try to head out for some exercise….for fun! Learn to fall back in love with your sport, without placing pressure on structured training. A happy athlete is a fast athlete. 

Goal Reset

When you have taken the time to reset mentally, it’s time to start planning. Goal planning, if possible, should start as close to the end of the last result as possible. As stated in the above section, don’t rush this time! How your last result ended, is most likely to affect your planning for your future goal. Learning from this previous result will help you to establish a new plan for how to achieve your goal next time. Failure is one of our best teachers. Learning to view your last setback as a positive can set you off on a great trajectory for future success.

Sit down with your coach or support system to discuss how this next plan looks. What steps are necessary to take? What changes need to be made to the program? Pursuits, especially in athletics, require us to be pliable. If we remain plastic, then this does not allow for us to adapt and change to the situation. 

Perhaps this time your plan will include process goals that are the building blocks toward your overall goal and ambition. Hitting these process goals can help you remain motivated for the next task at hand. 

Adapt Your Training

Now that you have set a new goal, what does this look like when creating your training plan? When you didn’t achieve your last goal, what was the limitation? Learning to lean into your weaknesses will make you a better athlete. Dissect your last result, what was lacking? Endurance, sprint ability, or VO2 power? Work on these specific weaknesses that pertain to your new goal. 

While we sometimes feel that we did everything we could to prepare previously, chances are there is something we could have done better. If you feel that it was simply an “off” day and physical training could not be improved, what about your recovery? Could you sleep more? Incorporate better nutrition? Be more mentally focused? Be sure to comb through your preparation with a fine-tooth comb, chances are there is something missing that can help you in the next lead-up. 

While setbacks can be hard, they can be the best teachers. Learning how to take time for ourselves after a disappointing loss can benefit us both mentally and physically. Approaching a new goal with a fresh perspective and outlook can be the best fuel for the fire. 

Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training. While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships and World Cups on both the road and track.

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