Over the last few decades, I have worked with many athletes, from juniors to weekend warriors to pros and Olympians. One thing I have noticed is that the most powerful work I do with them isn’t your typical mental training where I teach them about positive thinking, mental imagery, routines, and how to stay intense and focused (though I certainly do that).
Instead, the most valuable work I do seems to involve the attitude that athletes have toward their sport. No matter how good your mental skills are, if you don’t have the right attitude, you aren’t going to perform your best.
This article is going to focus on several key ways you should think about your sports participation to not only perform your best, but, perhaps more importantly, to enjoy the competition and gain the most benefits from your athletic experiences.
I see athletes express many different emotions after competitions. After a good performance, I see joy, excitement, pride, and inspiration. But, after less successful competitions, I see frustration, anger, and sadness. Yet, the one emotion that I consider to be perhaps the worst of all emotions for athletes to experience is regret.
What is regret? That you wish you had done something differently. The sad reality is that there are no dress rehearsals in life, there is no “Way Back” machine (can anyone give me that cultural reference?) for do-overs. You get one shot in a competition, so you might as well take it, otherwise there will be a whole lot of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” when you look in the rearview mirror of your day on the field, course, court, hill, or what-have-you.
When have you felt regret in your sport? If you’re like most athletes, it’s when you didn’t go for it in a competition, when you held back and performed tentatively and played it safe. When you cross the finish line or the whistle blows and reflect on your performance and the score or time, you want to kick yourself because you wished you had gone for it. When I speak to athletes, I always ask whether they would rather perform safely and do okay or go all out and either have a great performance or crash and burn. With almost complete unanimity, the answer is “I would rather give it my all and see what happens.” But when I ask them what they typically do, many athletes say rather sheepishly, “I usually perform cautiously.”
The irony is that when you play it safe, you have little to no chance of having a good performance because sports require that you take risks to be successful. And therein lies the regret. Before you begin, you just want to not fail. But when you perform poorly and fail to live up to your expectations, you wish you had “left it all out there,” even if the risks didn’t pay off. For you to perform your best, you must make the commitment to go for it before you begin.
What prevents athletes from laying it on the line in competitions when they know consciously that they should? Plain and simple: fear of failure. This unconscious, yet potent, force causes a mindset that goes against just about everything that you need to think, feel, and do to perform your best and achieve your goals. Most basically, to perform your very best in most sports, you must take risks, whether going for a winner in tennis, aiming for a birdie putt instead of laying it up in golf, or running at a pace you’re not entirely sure you can maintain in a 10K race. At the same time, when you take risks, your chances of failure increase as well; the nature of risks is that they are uncertain. If you have a fear of failure, you’re not likely to take those risks because you are more concerned with avoiding failure than you are about pursuing success.
I don’t know many athletes who have regrets for when they went for it in a competition even if it didn’t work out (though there is certainly disappointment). I do know many athletes who have immense regret for what they didn’t do, for when they failed to give it everything had when the opportunity arose. Yet, when you play it safe in a competition, regret is what you will surely feel.
I think you should go for it in every competition. Of course, many of those opportunities won’t end well; that’s the uncertainty of sports. You will naturally feel disappointment that things didn’t turn out the way you wanted. But that feeling of disappointment will be mild and short lived compared to the intense and long-lasting feeling of regret you may feel if you don’t compete all out. Also, with that sadness at the failed opportunity, there is an upside. You will feel a certain pride in knowing that at least you went for it and gave it your all because that’s all you have within your control. As the saying goes, “If you don’t take the shot, you can’t score.”
Along with regret is a question that may gnaw at you for every missed opportunity to leave it all out there that passes you by: “I wonder what could have been?” You don’t have a crystal ball in which you can gaze into the past to see what would have happened if you had let go of your fears and gone for it. Of course, good things don’t always happen when you put yourself out there, but I’m going to argue that more good things will happen when you go for it than when you play it safe. There’s another old saying that “It’s better to make errors of commission than errors of omission.” Even if things don’t work out as planned, at least you tried and know what happened and, with that knowledge, you don’t spend your days filled with regret wondering what could have been.
At the end of a day of competition, a season, career, or when you are lying on your death bed, I want you to look back on your sports experience, whether you won Olympic gold, competed in college, or just had a ton of fun, and be able to say “I left it all out there.” You can only do that when you aren’t afraid to fail. And one important way to not fear failure is to believe that regret is far worse than failure. And, based on my experience as a athlete and as a person who’s been on this planet for quite a while, I can assure you that it is.
By the way, there might just be an important life lesson beyond sports here!