Complete Guide to Losing Composure in Sports

Feeling frustrated after a mistake is natural. In fact, it’s so natural it can feel like getting mad is how you’re supposed to react to mistakes.

But remember: the way you’re supposed to respond to mistakes is the way that puts you in the best position to succeed moving forward.

That means bouncing back from the mistake and moving on.

So why is it, then, you lose composure during games? Even if you know getting too upset will only lead to you playing worse in the future, why still allow yourself to get so upset?

In this article, we’re going to uncover the true reason athletes lose composure after making mistakes in games, along with a strategy you can use to manage your composure as an athlete.

Why You Lose Composure

Now, in the moment, you aren’t consciously choosing to lose composure. By the nature of losing composure, it is happening in a very reactionary way.

And the severity of this natural reaction relies heavily upon the beliefs and expectations you have going into the game.

It is your beliefs and your expectations that are the true cause of you losing your composure.

A prime example is the belief that you can’t make any mistakes. If you hold that belief, it makes sense why you’d get upset with yourself if you do make a mistake. You have failed to reach your expectations for that day.

A great example of this is a softball player I worked with who tended to lose her composure while pitching.

She was a very talented pitcher, but that didn’t make her immune to throwing balls, walking batters, and having people get hits off her. All of those are simply part of the game.

However, for her, these things meant she’d not lived up to her expectations for that day.

Falling Short of Your Expectations

When she failed to reach her own expectations, she lost her composure. From an outside perspective, you could tell she was upset. Her body language completely changed, and her movements became less confident.

On the inside, she told me she was absolutely tearing herself down. Using all kinds of unkind language to remind herself of how awful the last pitches were.

As these negative thoughts continued, her confidence continued to drop and so did her level of performance. This led to more bad pitches, further frustration, and ultimately getting pulled from the game.

What was it, really, that led to her getting so mad at herself?

It was the belief that she shouldn’t walk any batters and should throw perfectly. As soon as this expectation was not met, frustration grew. To the point where she lost control.

The Demand to Win

Another example is from a young obstacle course racer. His story truly highlights one of the major causes for athletes losing composure – the expectation of winning.

As he and I talked about a lot, the goal of winning is not bad at all. In fact, it should always be your goal. Because to win means you likely did your best, and doing your best is a great aim to set for yourself.

Trouble creeps in, however, when you expect yourself to win every time and can’t handle it if this doesn’t happen. The belief in that situation is: I must place first or win, otherwise I’m terrible. It’s very much all or nothing thinking.

He gave me an example of a race he competed in where he ran incredibly well. His run was so strong, in fact, that he stated that after he’d finished he felt like it was one of the best runs he’d ever had.

So immediately he felt good about how he did.

You see how the belief that it was a great run led to him feeling good at that moment? Well, all that changed very quickly for him. He watched as the next few runners got better times than he did and subsequently kicked him off the podium.

How do you think he responded to this? Not very well, unfortunately. He got angry with himself and felt like he’d done terribly since he didn’t make the podium.

But hold on a second, wasn’t he just happy with the way he’d raced and thinking about how it was the absolute best he could’ve done?

Yes, and that shows how quickly expectations can change the way you feel about yourself and your performance – leading to a loss of composure.

His overall expectation for that race was to make the top three and find himself standing on the podium. After his run, however, he showed a glimpse of a fantastic shift in his expectation.

Instead of focusing on the podium, he simply felt good about the way he’d raced. It didn’t have much to do with the outcome.

But as soon as the other races finished, and he realized he wasn’t going to make the top three, his mind jumped back to the outcome and he got extremely upset with himself.

Nothing changed about the way he’d raced. The only change that had occurred was in terms of his beliefs about the race.

Instead of believing it was a good race if he felt good about his own run, he was reminded of his belief that it was only a good race if he made the top three.

For yourself, what are the expectations you have going into a game and the beliefs you have about what it means to play well? If you tend to lose composure during games, these expectations are likely the true cause.

Of course there is something to be said about your ability to control the frustration you feel in the moment. And that is mainly what the strategy we’re going to go over focuses on.

But it’s important to realize that the reason the loss of composure is there in the first place has to do with the beliefs and expectations you hold going into the game or performance.

If you can change those expectations, you can limit the amount of frustration you feel following mistakes and other situations during games. This, in turn, helps with the in-the-moment strategy to calm yourself down and refocus.

Strategy to Manage Loss of Composure

How realistic do you think it is to not feel frustrated after a mistake or a bad call? How easy do you think it would be to feel happy following a mistake or a bad call?

To answer the first question, it’s not very realistic at all. You’re out there to play well, not make mistakes. When you do make a mistake, it’s natural to feel a little frustrated at the moment.

And to answer the second question, it’s absolutely not easy to jump to the opposite end of the spectrum and feel happy after a mistake or a bad call. Once again, you aren’t out there to make mistakes.

The goal isn’t to feel absolutely no frustration at all. The goal is to learn how to recognize and manage the frustration you do feel.

Over time, this combined with reframing the expectations you have going into games, will be the only way of slowly reducing how frustrated and angry you naturally get in response to mistakes, along with bad calls and other frustrating situations.

Managing loss of composure is a process that requires a short-term strategy, along with a long-term practice of changing the expectations you have going into games and the way you look at mistakes in general.

Managing Your Composure in the Moment

Remember, the goal isn’t to feel no frustration at all. It’s to learn how to respond to the frustration and anger you feel in a better way.

For example, the softball player I mentioned earlier got extremely upset with herself following a few walks while pitching, an error in the field, or a bad at bat.

As we worked together on controlling her composure in these moments, I reinforced how natural feeling upset was. After all, she wasn’t out there hoping to make mistakes. Her goal, just as your goal is, was to play her best.

So instead of harping on something that wasn’t realistic (not getting upset at all), we focused on her response to the frustration. Trusting that the more attention she gave to her reaction, and the better she managed the frustration she felt, the less frustration she would naturally feel as time went on.

The way this worked for her, just as it’s worked for many other athletes and will work for you, is creating an in-the-moment strategy for calming down and refocusing.

It is your focus on the mistake, after all, that is causing your loss of composure. If you had short-term memory loss, you’d quickly forget about the mistake and wouldn’t be so angry about it. It’s hard to be frustrated over something you don’t remember.

Stopping the Negative Thoughts

The first step is to create a strategy for calming yourself down in the moment. A great tool to use is a thought-stopping phrase.

A thought-stopping phrase is a phrase you repeat to yourself in the moment, to stop unhelpful thoughts and refocus yourself on what’s important.

A key element of a thought-stopping phrase is recentering in the present moment. For this part, I recommend taking a few deep breaths.

It is such a simple act, but one of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re upset and frustrated during a game. It will immediately work to calm you down and slow down your thinking.

And the calmer you can make your mind, the easier it is to let go of the mistake and refocus onto what’s next (the next play, pitch, or drive, for example).

Now, there is an aspect of managing frustration in the moment that precedes a thought-stopping phrase, and that’s awareness.

Without the awareness that you’re getting upset, a thought-stopping phrase (or any other strategy, for that matter) won’t do much good.

Building this awareness will take longer than simply crafting a thought-stopping phrase. But as you grow in your awareness, tools like a thought-stopping phrase become more and more effective.

Building awareness is all about attention. Awareness means recognizing and understanding.

When we relate it to getting frustrated and losing composure, it involves realizing, in the moment, that you’re upset.

It’s easy to look back over a game and point out all the times you lost your composure. It’s a lot more difficult to be aware in the moment that you’re getting upset. Because when you lose composure, your emotions are getting the best of you.

As your emotions take over, the thinking part of your brain gets blocked.

What you must work on is remaining consciously aware in those moments when you get upset and lose composure.

An exercise I’ve used to help with this, even in younger athletes who are trying to manage their frustration and responses to mistakes, is keeping a journal.

What you can do is keep a journal of all the times you lost your composure that day. No matter if it’s a practice or a game, this exercise will help build your awareness.

You can either write it out as a paragraph, or make yourself a table. But what you want to make sure you do is explain the situation, what led to you losing your composure (the main thing you were upset about), and then how you reacted.

Then, for one final step, you can explain how you want to react next time. This will likely involve using a thought-stopping phrase and calming yourself down and refocusing better in the moment.

By analyzing your practices and games with this exercise, your awareness will grow and you will become more familiar with your emotions and your reactions.

You will also grow in your understanding of what leads to you getting upset. All of this increases the chances of you recognizing, in the moment, that you’re losing your composure.

And it’s that in the moment awareness that provides you with the opportunity to use your thought-stopping phrase and begin to calm yourself down – managing your emotions and stopping yourself from losing your composure.

Changing Your Expectations

Once you have your thought-stopping phrase created and are working to build awareness, you want to transition your focus onto a long-term way of managing loss of composure.

Do you remember one of the main reasons we went over earlier for why you lose composure in the first place? It’s because the expectations you set were not met.

A prime example is the expectation that you need to play perfectly. If that’s your goal, the first sign that you’re not perfect, meaning the first mistake you make, can send you spiraling out of control.

So, if we want to manage your loss of composure long-term, we must work on reframing the expectations you have for practices and games. In addition, there’s a shift that needs to take place in your thinking relating to mistakes.

To help with reframing your expectations, I want you to think about why they’re there in the first place…why do you set expectations for yourself?

The most common answer I get to that question is because the athlete wants to play their best. Is that the case for yourself? It’s an absolutely natural and understandable reason for setting expectations.

I mean, who doesn’t want to go out there and compete at their highest level each and every day? But…are expectations really needed to do so?

When you set high expectations (such as playing perfectly) this is not completely within your control. This means, the very thing that can lead to you losing your composure is not fully within your power to make happen.

But if you want to manage your loss of composure and remain in control of yourself, what you focus on and the goals you have for games need to be 100% within your control.

An exercise you can do is make a list of all the high expectations you have that lead to loss of composure. The list can be as long or as short as you need. But be honest with yourself and get as specific as possible.

What all do you expect of your performance (or even your teammates) that causes you to lose composure if it’s not met?

Then, go through each expectation and change it to a goal that is 100% within your control.

The greatest part of this exercise is that the goals you create will give you the best chance of getting the high expectation you used to set for yourself. Without the added element of losing your composure if the expectation isn’t met.

Now, I do want to mention that just because you change your expectations to controllable goals does not mean your loss of composure will vanish instantly.

It’s a process. Which is why you are combining this long-term approach with your short-term strategy for managing your composure when you do find yourself getting upset during practices or games.

Reframing Mistakes

There’s one additional strategy, or mindset shift, we can say, that will keep you from losing composure. It’s going to focus solely on mistakes. Specifically, how you can reframe what mistakes mean in the first place to change the way you react to them.

Right now, if you lose composure following a mistake, how would you say you view that mistake and all mistakes you make?

Do you see them as something bad? Do you see mistakes as things that need to be avoided at all costs and only mean one thing and one thing only…that you weren’t good enough?

If that’s how you view mistakes, then it’s no wonder you get so upset over them.

However, there is a different perspective you can take. One that will shift the way you look at mistakes; turning them from something to fear into something more positive and helpful.

But before we get into that mindset shift, I want to be very clear on something. The goal isn’t to be happy about mistakes! That would be ridiculous. Not to mention unrealistic.

The fact is, mistakes are frustrating and they aren’t what you set out to make during practices or games. You compete to play your best. Not to mess up.

So just because we’re going to shift our perspective of mistakes, that doesn’t mean we’re going to shoot to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and feel happy after a mistake.

What we are going to do, though, is begin to see mistakes for what they truly are…a learning experience.

Mistakes are teachers. Sometimes cruel teachers, but teachers nonetheless. And while their lessons may be tough to bear at times, they can lead to incredible growth for you as an athlete.

By reframing mistakes in this way, you strip away the fear. Since there’s no reason to be afraid about something that will help you improve. But specifically with what we’re covering in this section, seeing mistakes as learning experiences will help limit the amount of frustration you feel following the mistake.

Much like the strategy we just discussed, viewing mistakes as a teacher helps in two ways.

In the short-term, keeping this idea in mind will help you to remember to look for any lessons that can be gained from the mistake or adjustments that can be made to your game.

A great example of this is a baseball player I was talking to this past week, actually. We were going over this very same idea; talking about different ways he can learn from his mistakes during a game.

He talked about how if he strikes out, something he could learn is to have better plate discipline (so swing at better pitches).

I asked him how he would use that information going into his next at bat and he told me he would set the objective for the at bat to be disciplined and focus on swinging at good pitches.

That is a simple example that shows the power viewing mistakes as an opportunity to learn has on your game in the short-term. It allows you to take something from a mistake, make an adjustment, and improve moving forward within the game.

Making these types of in game adjustments, instead of losing your composure, is what begins to separate you from other competitors.

In addition to helping you remember to learn something from the mistake in the moment (which is a key part of the strategy to manage your composure) shifting your overall perspective in terms of mistakes will reduce the initial frustration you feel long-term.

Now this change takes a lot more time, so don’t expect it to happen overnight. But the more you truly believe mistakes are simply teachers that help you learn and grow as a player, the less angry you will become when you make a mistake.

But once again, that doesn’t mean you’ll be jumping up and down with joy after every mistake. I don’t think your coach would be too pleased with that.

What it does mean, however, is that you come to realize the ineffectiveness of getting too upset, and that mistakes, while not the most fun things to have happen, can serve as valuable lessons on your path towards becoming a better player…if seen in a more productive light.

Final Thoughts

Losing your composure can happen following a mistake or any other frustrating situation during a game.

When you lose your composure, this distracts you and typically leads to more mistakes moving forward. Creating a snowball effect that can quickly turn into a terrible performance.

The reason loss of composure happens is because of high expectations and beliefs that are set before games, such as the belief that you can’t make any mistakes and you need to perform perfectly.

There are two aspects of managing loss of composure: creating an in-the-moment strategy for letting go of mistakes and controlling your frustration, along with changing the expectations you have going into games.

In addition, reframing mistakes and seeing them as teachers is a powerful way to keep yourself from losing composure when you make mistakes during practice or competition.

To learn more about one-on-one mental performance coaching, please fill out the form below. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

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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