Tuesday Tips: Losing Gracefully And Bouncing Back

You don't need to be immune to feelings of disappointment in order to respond well after a tough loss.

Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

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This article was written by guest author Peter Bonanno.

You watch as the other team floods the field from the sidelines, cheering and hugging each other after scoring the game-winning point. Numbly you get in line to high-five your opponents and then retreat to your stuff, avoiding eye contact with your teammates.

You begin replaying the game — key moments, critical mistakes — and wonder where exactly the game plan, the team, derailed. As you try to grapple with the loss and its repercussions, a sickening weight settles into the pit of your stomach. You might be tempted to ignore the feeling, or even feel guilty for the negative emotion. Don’t.

Losing gracefully doesn’t require you to be immune from the feelings of disappointment. Know that there are productive ways to channel those feelings into bouncing back stronger for the next challenge.

Losing Feels Bad. Don’t Fight the Feeling.

I think this is the most overlooked skill in the art of losing gracefully and bouncing back.

Losing feels bad. It is a visceral, gut-level feeling of ‘bleh’ that takes over. It happens whether you’re on a team that’s losing or watching your favorite sports team lose.

But the trouble in losing is not so much that unpleasant feeling itself. It’s when you react against that feeling, individually or as a team. This causes further instability in each individual psyche and in the team psyche. By “react against,” I mean trying to fight, push away, ignore, or bargain with the unpleasant feeling of losing. This takes different forms for each of us:

  • You might ruminate. You walk off the field mentally replaying a throwaway, saying to yourself, “If only I had done X instead of Y, if only, if only…” This rumination is an attempt to use mental time travel to manage away the unpleasant feeling, and it doesn’t work.
  • You might blame yourself (“What’s wrong with me?”). Blaming is different from taking responsibility for your game and performance — it’s more heavy-handed and less constructive.
  • You might blame your teammates, “If only they had done X instead of Y.” As above, blaming is different from helping your team take collective responsibility for the loss.
  • You might become hyper-focused on tactics, strategy, and personnel. Tactical, strategic, and personnel adjustments have their role in turning around a losing game. One tendency when losing, however, can be to try to micromanage all parts of a game, fueled by a desperation to get things back in control. This can lead to being overly in your head or tight-minded, and is one of the most common patterns in teams that get “headcasey” under pressure.
  • You might become hyper-focused on spirit. Sometimes a way to cope with disappointing competitive performance is to mentally disengage with the competitive dimension of the game, and focus solely on the spirit dimension, since that feels within your control to “win.” Focusing on spirit is of course great, but it can be done in a way that feels disconnected from what you or your team really needs.
  • You might “check out,” mentally and emotionally leaving the game and your connection to your teammates.

I name these to point out that everyone has their own ways of coping with the unpleasant feeling of losing. Yet, each tendency is sub-optimal for losing gracefully and bouncing back. I’ve found personally that it helps to recognize when I’m doing something to react against the emotion — awareness is the first step in controlling your reaction.

The Way Forward

The cleanest way forward is to start by acknowledging that losing feels bad. Take a moment to just recognize that losing hurts.

If you feel shitty walking off the field, take a breath and say to yourself, “I thew away a disc. This feels really bad.” Or, “I wanted to win this game and we didn’t. This feels really bad.” Give yourself the generosity of spirit to just recognize that losing feels bad, and feeling bad is hard. Even just a moment to acknowledge — rather than react against — the feeling makes a big difference for what happens next.

The same is true in team huddles — it helps to start by acknowledging the emotions that stem from losing, that the team is feeling disappointed, etc., before talking about what to do next. I can’t overstate how important this is.

As long as you push away the reality of the unpleasant feeling, it will create inner turbulence, taking up mental and emotional bandwidth. When you acknowledge the unpleasantness, the turbulence in your mind and emotions settles down, and you will have more space to respond. This isn’t just opinion, there’s a lot of research on this.1

What to Do When You’re Losing and When You Lose

When You’re Losing:

  • More effort is easier than less effort. When the going gets tough, the natural tendency is to disengage and put in less effort. But in the long run of a game, tournament, or season, it is easier to put in more effort than less. Cheering for your teammates takes effort, but it is easier to be on a team where people cheer for each other than to be on a team where people don’t. Continuing to sprint hard on your O cuts takes effort, but it’s easier than turning the disc and having to play D. Giving that extra ounce of effort to shut down your person on D or reach for a layout takes effort, but putting in this effort will give your team energy and make things easier. Recognize the human tendency to withdraw effort when things aren’t working. Buck the trend by putting energy back into the system. If you turned the disc, don’t sit in the shade tent staring at your hands; get some water, get some electrolytes, and as soon as you can, get back up and pump up your teammates. Cheer when your team gets scored on. It’s more effort in the short term, but much easier in the long term.
  • Get simple. Focus on doing the simple things right, not doing more complicated things.
    • On offense, make hard in-cuts. Make hard dump-cuts. Throw to space. Watch the disc into your hands.
    • On defense, hold your mark. Do your best to stay on your cutter’s hip.

    Focus on the simplest aspects that make your game work. As you do, you will start re-experiencing the feeling of success and get back into flow. As the team re-experiences successes, even simple ones like getting solid dumps and cuts off, the team gets an emotional lift.

  • Head, heart, or body? This is a short question to ask yourself to check what you need or before speaking in a huddle. What’s needed here — is it something at the level of head, heart, or body?
    • Head means tactics, thinking, or learning new things. This can be powerful, but is the most overestimated element. You may have heard the factoid that our working memories can only hold 5-7 thoughts at a time. When playing sports, I think this drops down to 1-2. If you truly feel there’s a tactical adjustment that will help, go for it. But feel out where you and your teammates are when it comes to more thoughts, feedback, and opinions. Beyond one or two ideas at a time, additional thinking can start pushing a team further into headcase territory.
    • Heart means feeling. How am I feeling, how is the team feeling? Are we feeling bold, complacent, courageous, jittery, fresh? Sometimes what we need as individuals or a team is a little boost for the heart, and with this boost all sorts of other tactical stuff falls into place.
    • Body means something physical. Sometimes bouncing back is not a matter of “getting your head in the game” but “getting your body in the game.” If you’re sluggish on D, run some quick sprints, practice marking, or do quick side-shuffles. Give your body the feeling of moving athletically. Feel the movements you want to make. Recognize when talk is not helpful — whether from another person or from your own inner critic — and find a way to “get out of your head and into your body.”
  • Pick someone else up. Finally, probably the most direct route to bouncing back when you’re losing is to pump someone else up. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself, then as soon as you can, turn your attention outward, get back up, and cheer for someone else.

When You Lose:

  • Lose gracefully, go down swinging. If you’re going to lose, lose playing the game you want to play, with the spirit you want to have. As the peace activist Parker Palmer says, you can’t tie yourself to outcomes because outcomes are to some extent out of your control; what you can do is have faithfulness to values. Whether your value is cheering for your teammates or sick blocks, why not keep it up right until the buzzer?
  • Lose together. Sports are more fun to watch in sports bars and pubs because even when you lose, you get to share that loss. When you lose, players tend to pull apart from each other a bit, and that’s natural. At some point, it helps to pull back together again. Take the beers out, play Spike Ball, commiserate about how frustrated you are with your playing. It’s just more fun that way.

When everyone on the team does these things, that’s a culture that doesn’t stay down for long.


  1. For example: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/negative-emotions-key-well-being/ 

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