Canada’s Andi Naude, who came into the Olympics ranked No. 2 in the world in women’s mogul skiing, reacts after failing to complete her final run at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games (photo by Jonathan Hayward, the Canadian Press).

The agony of defeat: How Olympians can deal with failure

It’s been said there’s nothing worse than finishing fourth at the Olympics.

By Leah Ferguson and Kent Kowalski

There have been some amazing performances so far from the athletes who have won medals at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. But behind those who take gold, silver or bronze are stories of personal failures and setbacks for the athletes who never make it to the medal podium.

For many, coming up short at the Olympics will present some of the most difficult emotional experiences of their careers.

When athletes experience failures and setbacks, not only are they often harsh and self-critical, but there can be other consequences, such as loss of funding and support systems. Even the fear of experiencing failures and setbacks can prevent athletes from delivering their best performances when they are needed the most.

Finding resources that athletes can use to help them navigate through difficult emotional experiences—whether they occur before, during or after an event like the Olympics—is essential to their success.

Learning self-compassion

One such resource for the athletes’ toolbox might be something called self-compassion.

Being self-compassionate means athletes recognize they are experiencing an emotionally difficult time and want to do something to help themselves through it.

Research suggests self-compassion can be a useful resource to deal with failures and setbacks if athletes can treat themselves kindly rather than be harsh and self-critical, are able to balance their thoughts and emotions and recognize that other competitors experience similar hardships.

Two other commonly used “self” terms in sport are self-confidence and self-esteem.

Self-confidence typically refers to athletes’ general beliefs that they can be successful. Self-esteem refers to an overall evaluation of self-worth. Self-confidence and self-esteem are often linked—if athletes feel competent in sport, that competence can be an important part of high self-esteem.

On the other hand, being self-compassionate does not require feelings of competence or worth. It simply requires the recognition of suffering and a desire to help yourself through that suffering.

Sport psychology researchers and practitioners are also increasingly exploring ways to teach athletes to be self-compassionate. Amber Mosewich, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, developed a seven-day sport-specific self-compassion intervention for self-critical female athletes.

The athletes in Prof. Mosewich’s research were introduced to self-compassion at an introductory session, followed by five self-compassion writing exercises completed over the following week.

One exercise asked athletes to write a note to themselves expressing understanding, kindness and concern in the same way they would talk to a friend experiencing the same situation. Athletes who took part in the intervention reported a significant increase in self-compassion, as well as significant decreases in concerns over mistakes, rumination and self-criticism.

From our and our colleagues’ research with athletes from a range of sports and levels of competition, the types of failures and setbacks athletes often report include feeling responsible for a team loss, injury, failing to meet personal goals and expectations, making errors, social comparison and performance plateaus.

The Conversation

Leah Ferguson is an assistant professor in the College of Kinesiology. Kent Kowalski is a professor and associate dean academic in the College of Kinesiology.