Regret Is the Worst Emotion in Sports
Regret means you wish you would have done something differently...but you can't.
Posted Mar 12, 2018
Over the last few decades, I have worked with many athletes, from juniors to Olympians and professionals. The most powerful work I do with athletes isn’t your typical mental training where I teach them about positive thinking, mental imagery, routines, and how to stay intense and focused (though these mental tools are important).
Instead, the most valuable work I do involves the attitudes that athletes have toward their sport. No matter how strong your mental muscles are and no matter how filled your mental toolbox is, if you don’t have the right attitudes, you aren’t going to perform your best and get the results you want.
This article is going to focus on a key attitude you should develop about your sport to not only perform your best, but, just as importantly, to enjoy your participation and gain the most benefits from your competitive experiences.
I see athletes express many different emotions after competitions. After a good result, 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 after a competition is regret.
What is regret? That you wish you had done something differently. The sad reality is that there are no dress rehearsals in sports or 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 competition day.
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. When you’re finished and you see how you did, 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 not perform up their ability or go all out and perhaps do poorly because of a mistake. With almost complete unanimity, the answer is “I would rather attack 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 competition because sports require that you perform on the edge to be successful. And therein lies the regret. Before you begin, you may feel compelled to play it safe. But when you perform poorly because you were cautious, you wish you had laid it down, 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 walk onto the field of play.
What prevents athletes from laying it on the line in competitions when they know consciously that they should? The most common reason: fear of failure (read my four-part series about 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 sports goals. Most basically, to perform your very best, you must take risks, whether going for an ace in tennis, a birdie putt in golf, or a 3-pointer in basketball. At the same time, when you take risks, your chances of missing 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 in defeat). I do know many athletes who have immense regret for what they didn’t do, for when they failed to “leave it all out there” when the opportunity arose. Yet, when you play it safe in your sport, regret is what you will surely feel.
I think you should go for it in every competition. I don’t mean giving up on good technique and tactics and performing recklessly; that’s another recipe for defeat. You have to perform your best, but you also must know when to attack and when to lay back.
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 perform 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 wondering what could have been. Plus, I’m going to argue that if you keep going for it, I can’t guarantee that you’ll succeed today, but if you keep going for it, good things will happen at some point.
At the end of a competition day, season, career, or when you are lying on your death bed, I want you to look back on your sport, 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 an elite athlete, a person, and a sport psychologist, I can assure you that it is.
By the way, there might just be an important life lesson beyond sports here as well!