Resilience in Sports: How to Bounce Back from Failure

Failure are going to happen to you as an athlete. What matters is how you respond. Learn how you can build resilience in your sport and manage failure better as an athlete.

Failure is common in sports. As much as it would be nice to be able to avoid it, at some point, you’re going to experience failure as an athlete.

Whether it’s making mistakes during a game, not making a team you try out for, or losing your starting position, you’re going to face setbacks. The question is, how are you going to respond?

Are you going to allow the failure to consume you, get upset, and lose the motivation to keep pushing forward?

Or are you going to get back on your feet, learn something from the failure, and keep moving forward determined to grow and improve as a player?

I hope you choose the second option! And if you do, the skill you need to develop that will help you bounce back from failure in sports is resilience.

What Does It Mean To Be Resilient

No matter who you are or what you do, failure is going to find you. In some capacity or another, things are not going to go your way. For some people, it may come in the form of large, catastrophic events, while others may only have to deal with small road bumps.

But the size of the setback is not important, and the principles of resilience are the same either way.

The American Psychology Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well to adversity, challenges, and significant sources of stress.

When we are working towards a specific goal, any failure or challenge along the way can cause us significant stress. Such an adverse situation has the capability to throw us off course.

Too many people, myself included, dwell on these failures long after they occur. Thinking deeply about this raises some interesting questions.

Why would we choose to relive an event that did not go how we wanted? Why would we focus on ourselves failing rather than succeeding? All that this does is keep our attention locked on an unhappy event and keeps us from progressing forward.

The ironic part of holding onto failure is that it keeps us from actually moving on. An act that we believe is somehow necessary and helping us, turns out to be inhibiting future success. I think one of the reasons we dwell on failure is because of the guilt associated with it.

It can seem somehow wrong or like you don’t care about what you are doing if you just brush off an unfortunate performance or setback. But the funny thing is, if you do care about being the best you can, dwelling on failure is something you absolutely mustn’t do.

I used to be guilty of this all the time. If I had a poor baseball game, which was a failure for me, I would spend that whole night and well into the next few days analyzing and obsessing over my performance.

What’s even worse is if I had a few bad games in a row, that could spiral me into a few weeks of constant fret and worry.

Fail Fast!

Whenever I would allow a bad game to become fixed in my mind, I then carried it into the next game. Now, rather than being prepared to perform well, I was still feeling the emotions associated with the previous game and I was not focused on the present moment.

What this did was allow my failures to compound on one another, contributing to and creating future setbacks.

Instead, what we must do is accept the setbacks in our lives and get ourselves in the mindset of moving forward as soon as possible. However, this is not easy to do, especially if you are under the impression that it is somehow admirable to torture yourself with the memory of your failure.

Feeling disappointed in ourselves makes it seem that we must really care about what we are doing. If we didn’t feel this way, we must not be that invested right? Wrong! Especially if you want to improve and succeed in the future.

Resilience in sports refers to recovering quickly from a setback. That means we cannot dwell on the past.

My mom would always say, “fail fast,” which really grasps the essence of being resilient; to work quickly through the feelings of failure immediately after the event.  

If I failed in an at-bat, like striking out, for example, failing fast would mean thinking about the at-bat and deciding on what I could learn, then letting it go.

Done correctly, this would mean going into the next plate appearance as if it were the first. It took me a while to fully understand this concept, and even longer to begin to do it well.

Our minds want to naturally hold onto these bad experiences, whether as a means to keep us safe from unpleasant situations, or as a way to perpetuate a feeling of guilt.

No matter what the reason, in order to bounce back from failure, we must accept the need to let go and forget about it as soon as possible.

How Should We Look at Failure?

How you view failure has an enormous impact on the way you respond to it as an athlete. When a setback presents itself there are two choices: learn from it or allow it to tear you dosn.

Yes, it really is that simple, and if we adopt a certain way of looking at failure, the reaction becomes natural.

It is not that easy to be resilient, fail fast, and learn from mistakes. And unless you are mentally prepared and ready, the emotions that accompany a failure are too great, causing your mind to become clouded, not allowing you to think straight.

So what’s the answer?

It’s to take a proactive approach, meaning you must accept that failure is a natural part of the game.

View failure as an opportunity to learn, grow and improve yourself as a player.

There is nothing wrong with failing, but there is something wrong with allowing failure to hold you back. Fear causes you to avoid taking risks, turning into the fear of failure. But that fear can be overcome by accepting and learning from your mistakes.

How to Be More Resilient as an Athlete

Failures are going to happen to you as an athlete. The testament to your character is how hard of a hit you can take and still get up and keep moving towards your goal.

So how do we do this? How can we cultivate the habit of bouncing back from failure, rather than letting it define who we are?

As I addressed in the previous section, a large part of this comes from how we view failure in the first place. There is no shortcut to being resilient. To put it simply, we just have to do it.

You must focus on building up the proper mindset, so you will be equipped and ready the next time you’re faced with a setback or challenge in your game.

While it may seem strange, accepting does not mean wanting. We should not want failure, but we should accept it, meaning we allow it to happen, knowing it is a natural part of sports (and a necessary part at that).

Resistance is one of the main culprits that leads to continual thinking and obsessing over failure.

Instead of resisting failure, you must accept it, learn from it, and then move on. To help, here are some tips you can use.

View Failure as a Learning Experience

This whole article on bouncing back from failure has been centered around this idea. We want to begin looking at failure as if it were a learning experience.

As a child, when you learn to walk, there are many falls along the way. You do not stop walking just because you fell, instead, you take it as part of the process.

Similarly, we should view the falls we have in our adult lives as part of the process towards success. Do not become discouraged, but rather view failure as a teacher.

There is no better teacher than defeat. Through challenging times we learn what we did wrong, and how we can improve the next time.

Think of it in similar terms to building muscle. There cannot be muscle growth without first tearing down the fibers that make it up. Only then, after being broken, will you see progress.

Likewise, as an athlete, you must fail in order to grow. You need setbacks to show you the parts of your game you can improve. So instead of being afraid to fail, begin viewing failure as an opportunity to learn.

Don’t View Failure as a Personal Defeat

One of the most problematic views we can take on failure is that it is personal.

The previous guideline was all about viewing failure as a learning experience. Well, that cannot be done if the setback feels like a personal defeat.

What this means is allowing a negative experience to hit you at the core of your self-worth.

For example, if you are a basketball player and you miss the game-winning shot, you could potentially take it as a personal defeat. You may begin to doubt your abilities, question your role on the team, and lose confidence in your skills.

There is no need for this type of thinking when it comes to failure. All it does is create unneeded stress and strain on your mind.

Instead of picking ourselves up and learning from the experience, we let it slowly destroy us.

Whenever failure is present, try your best to view it objectively, and not take it too personally.

Be Grateful of Failure

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, being grateful for failure seems like an incredibly stupid way of looking at it.

We want to be grateful for those parts of our life that bring us joy and we want more of, not roadblocks and setbacks.

I understand this but hear me out. If you fail, it means you are working towards or doing something important. Otherwise, the failure wouldn’t mean much to you.

You should be grateful for failure because it serves as a reminder you had the courage to start working towards your dreams.

Also, if you learn from failure, as you should, it means you are one step closer to success. Be grateful for that!

Every setback or bad performance brings you one step closer to what you want, no matter what sport you play and what your goals are.

If you learn properly, then you’ll have additional knowledge as to what doesn’t work and what will work instead. This is all information that can only be gotten through experience. This is something to be grateful for.

So you see, we can have an attitude of gratitude when it comes to failure, without seeming totally insane.

Always Keep Going After Failure

When you fail, sometimes all you want to do is curl up in a corner, all alone, and cry.

Though, if what we are after is improvement, growth, and forward movement towards a goal then this type of behavior cannot be adopted.

Instead, you must get back on your feet and keep going as soon as possible. This can have many different interpretations, depending on what sport you play.

This is where the term “fail fast” I introduced earlier really comes into play.

It does not mean that you necessarily have to get back to doing the activity you failed at right away, especially since that can be difficult if it was a bad game, for example.

In order to keep going immediately after failing, you must get on the road to recovery as soon as possible.

This means letting go of the negative feelings associated with the event and taking an objective view.

Examining what went wrong, and asking ourselves, “What can be gained from this experience?”

If the failure is on a smaller scale, such as an at-bat in a baseball game, for example, moving on quickly is vital. Do not allow one failure to turn into many. Pick yourself up, accept the failure, and begin to move on right away.

Final Thoughts

Failure is not our choice, but how we respond to it is. No matter what the situation is, a lesson can always be learned that you can use to improve as an athlete.

The road to success in anything is always paved with setbacks and failures. There is admiration given to people who rise above such adversity. In order to do so, you must begin to view failure in a more positive light.

Become resilient, learn to be grateful for failure, learn from these experiences, and see how your life begins to change.

If you have any questions or concerns about resilience or any other sports psychology topic, please feel free to reach out to me.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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