Can a Bad Performance be Traumatic?

Can a bad performance be traumatic? We often don't refer to a bad game or performance as a trauma

Can a bad performance be traumatic? We often do not refer to a bad game or a poorly done presentation as a trauma. Such a word is reserved for the most severe situations. Performances are too trivial to be considered traumas that leave lasting impressions on our minds. Or are they? Traumas can come from anywhere; it’s all a matter of perspective.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined as the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event.

There is no definitive list of traumatic experiences. The criteria state an event is traumatic if an individual is physically or emotionally threatened or hurt.

When an individual experiences trauma, the event can result in long-term effects on their psychological well-being. After a while, the symptoms stemming from trauma can result in many other negative forms of thought. The chief disorder that trauma leads to is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). describes three different types of trauma that we can experience:

  1. Acute Trauma: This occurs after a one-time event.
  2. Chronic Trauma: The trauma develops after repeated episodes of high stress.
  3. Complex Trauma: This happens after exposure to multiple traumatic situations.

Traumatic experiences can be different for everyone, and consequently, the symptoms felt are going to range in severity and what they are from person to person. However, there are some typical symptoms, both physical and psychological/emotional that we can point to as being related to trauma.

Physical Symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle aches
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Jumpy/easily startled

Psychological/Emotional Symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling lost
  • Hopelessness
  • Feeling guilty
  • Embarrassed and shameful
  • Feeling unworthy

Bad Performance Trauma

While we typically associate trauma with war, natural disasters, or assault, the cause does not have to be at that level of severity. The other events that may seem like no big deal, may, in fact, greatly affect an individual.

The actual situation that causes trauma can vary a lot in perceived severity. What may seem to me like just another experience can be viewed by you as traumatic, or vice versa. So, we must remember that the cause of trauma is subjective.

Trauma should be defined more by the response it receives from an individual, rather than the event which was the trigger. This is where so many people fail to realize that a bad performance can be traumatic, depending on the perception of the athlete or performer.

It can be easy to brush off a bad performance as not being traumatic because it was “just a game.” We often do not feel worthy enough to claim our performance as traumatic because we feel guilty that nothing too bad has happened to us.

We begin to think about what real trauma is and those individuals who have faced seriously life-threatening situations which led to their trauma.

But just because you haven’t experienced trauma on the level someone else has does not mean what you’ve experienced isn’t traumatic. It’s all a matter of where you place your worth and how the situation affects you psychologically and emotionally.

Yes, someone else has experienced what you have and not felt trauma as a result. Yes, someone else has experienced a much worse situation which led to trauma. None of that matters or changes the fact that a bad performance left a lasting impression on your mind, altering the way you view yourself and the way you feel. Sounds like a good enough reason to label it as trauma to me.

I think that one of the most dangerous responses we can take to a performance that could be labeled as traumatic is feeling ashamed or unworthy to call it such. Instead, we tell ourselves not to be weak and that it shouldn’t affect us like this.

The fact is, you do feel that way. The experience did have an impact on you, and you have all the right to call it traumatic if that’s how you feel. By excusing it and suppressing the feelings you are only making it worse, leaving no chance for yourself to heal.

I would like to provide three examples of what some traumatic experiences could look like when it comes to bad performances.

Scenario 1:

For the first scenario, let’s say you are a high school athlete. You’re a starter on the team and are considered one of the best players. However, today is not your day.

During the game you make tons of mistakes, ultimately contributing to your team losing.

After the game, your team is huddled up for a meeting. You know that your coach is probably going to berate you for all the mistakes, so you brace for the attack.

But you never could have prepared for the extreme anger the coach shows towards you, pointing out all your mistakes and ultimately blaming you for the loss. As a result, you feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty.

This situation has the potential to be traumatic because it is an intense and emotional experience. One that could leave a lasting impact psychologically.

Scenario 2:

For the second scenario, let’s say you are a college student who has been asked to give a presentation.

When the day of the presentation comes, nerves take over, so much so that your hands are trembling. The worst part is your presentation requires you to hold a piece of paper as you speak. There will be no hiding your shaky hands.

Now you’re in front of the class, getting ready to speak and all that can be heard in the room is the sound of crinkling paper as your hands shake uncontrollably. When you open your mouth to speak, your voice is mimicking your hands.

The sound you produce is that of someone about to cry. As your voice trembles and your hands shake, you can begin to hear the audience whisper and laugh. The whole experience is a complete nightmare and an embarrassment.

This type of shameful and emotional experience has the potential to cause lasting trauma to your psyche, making any future similar situation appear threatening.

Scenario 3:

For the final example, let’s say you are an athlete playing in the championship game. This is something you and your teammates have always dreamt of and worked all year to achieve.

As the game winds down, it’s a close one, with your team barely leading. With their last chance to score, the opponent makes a final stand. On the brink of closing out the game, your team can already feel the joy of winning.

However, with their last attempt, the other team was able to capitalize on a costly error made by someone on your team. They win the championship, and the worst part is, you were the one who made the error that cost your team the game.

You can’t help but accept the blame for the defeat, and your spirits are completely crushed. The sight around you shows all your teammates in tears, as they realize how the championship slipped from their grasp.

This situation has the potential to be traumatic for you, as the emotions of guilt and defeat become overwhelming.

These three scenarios show how situations that don’t normally fall into the category of traumatic can leave a lasting impression on an individual’s mind. Each one of these situations painted a picture of intense negative emotion, something I believe is a critical link to an experience having a lasting traumatic impact on us.

The Future Impacts of Trauma

One of the key reasons it’s so important for us to recognize a bad performance as traumatic is the negative impacts it can have in the future. When we face such a situation as illustrated above or any other type of performance-related trauma, the consequences can last well into the years ahead.

If we fail to recognize these events as causing a lasting impression on our psyche, then no healing will take place. We will only brush them aside, allowing the emotions to rise again another time.

Also, these traumatic experiences can alter our perceptions and the way we live our lives. We may become fearful, timid, and avoidant of any situation which mimics the trauma.

As we grow more aware of how traumatic a bad performance can be, we must understand the negative thought patterns and frames of mind it can lead to.

Here are the most common side effects that stem out of traumatic experiences:

Fear of Failure

After experiencing a trauma related to a bad performance, a likely occurrence will be the fear of failure. Since the emotions felt after the event were so intense, you will do all you can to avoid such feelings in the future.

What this can lead to is an avoidance pattern. The most common behavioral response to the fear of failure is avoiding the act in which you are so afraid of failing. This way, you can protect yourself from any future failings.

While avoidance guarantees you will not succeed, it eliminates the chance of you experiencing the harsh emotions of failure once again. And anyone who has dealt with the fear of failure knows that missing out on success is a safer option than being put through the trauma again.

Performance Anxiety

After experiencing a traumatic performance, we will often become anxious whenever a similar situation arises. This intense feeling of nervousness, also known as performance anxiety, leads to further bad performances and a repeating cycle of negative experiences.

As with the fear of failure, whatever we associate with the trauma is going to cause us anxiety.

If you had a traumatic experience in your sport, then performance anxiety will be felt during competitions and even practice. This anxiety can be so intense that it drives you to avoid these situations in the future, just as with fear of failure.

If you experienced trauma during a speaking engagement or a presentation, then any time you may believe you’ll be called upon to speak can ignite a feeling of extreme anxiety. Classes may become a trigger, talking around the dinner table, or any situation which your mind perceives as a threat.


As a result of a traumatic performance, we often become fixated on perfecting ourselves and our craft as to not fail again. The downside of this is when it is taken to an extreme.

Perfectionism occurs when we refuse to accept any standard less than perfection. We strive to be perfect and self-deprecate ourselves upon failure to do so. The only problem is…perfection is not actually attainable.

We will always find areas that could have been improved upon and ways we can be better. This leads to continuous negative thinking and feeling less than adequate.

When it comes to trauma, we will use perfectionism as a way to convince ourselves that we are getting better or striving for excellence. But in reality, we are using it as a way to mask the pain and fear we feel as a result of the trauma we experienced.

How to Heal from Bad Performance Trauma

If you already believe you have experienced bad performance trauma, then I urge you to finally allow yourself acceptance. Accept that the situation you experienced had a traumatic impact on you. That way, you can make progress towards healing.

Just because a bad performance can be traumatic does not mean we must allow it to remain so. The first step is to recognize the significant impact the experience had on your psyche. Then, steps to improve must be made.

Since each of our traumatic experiences will be different, to truly heal and move forward a very personalized approach must be taken. It should target your specific event and help you to overcome the effects it had on your mind.

What I would like to do is provide you with an outline you can use to help get you on the right path towards overcoming the traumatic experience.

Step 1: Acceptance

One of the most common reactions we will have to bad performance trauma is downplaying its severity.

There are multiple reasons for this, with one being we do not feel worthy to call it a trauma. It was only a game, so why should it impact us so much? It’s not as if our life was threatened or we lost a loved one.

Just remember, we all experience trauma differently, so there is no right or wrong answer as to what can have a lasting negative impression on your mind.

Another reason we do not want to accept the trauma is embarrassment. It can be easy to feel weird or weak to say the coach yelling at you, making an error, or any other situation was traumatic.

We all want to seem tough and pretend like these things don’t bother us. But the truth is if they do, they do. At this point there is nothing you can do about it. Just accept that the event was traumatic and move onto step two.

Step 2: Identify the Main Trigger

Now you want to locate what exactly caused the experience to be so traumatic.

It can be easy to accept that the experience caused negative feelings, but you want to get specific. Think about what was happening and pinpoint the main trigger the best you can.

Was it that the coach yelled at you, or that you were embarrassed in front of your teammates? Was it that the audience laughed at you or that your hands and voice were shaking?

This is where you want to really examine the experience for what truly left such a mark on your mind.

Step 3: Incorporate Mental Training Tools

Now that you have accepted the trauma and identified the main trigger, mental tools can be used to reframe your mind. The reason bad performance traumas are so impactful to us is the negative effect they have on our future.

So, to avoid this from happening we can employ mental training tools to counteract the effects of the event. There is no changing the fact that the traumatic event happened and trying to do so will only cause you to sit and dwell on it. Instead, you want to move on and not allow it to control your mind in the future.

Bad performance trauma causes us to doubt ourselves, lose self-worth, have low levels of confidence in our skills, and continually second guess ourselves. Knowing that, here are some great tools we can begin to use:

  • Visualization: You can use visualization to see yourself successfully accomplishing the task which led to the trauma. Or you can visualize yourself in the traumatic experience and begin to feel yourself reacting in a more positive and confident way. This will help to reframe the way your mind views the negative experience.
  • Cognitive Restructuring: This is where you begin to reframe your internal dialogue. After the traumatic event, you will have negative self-talk begin to fill your mind, especially whenever you are in a similar situation. Cognitive restructuring will help you retrain your brain to speak differently to you, in a more positive manner.
  • Goal Setting: You can begin to set small goals for yourself which involve a part or the whole of the traumatic event. Then, begin to accomplish these goals. As you do, your confidence will grow, and the trauma related to that event will begin to subside.

How to Avoid Bad Performance Trauma

Now that it has been made known to you that a bad performance can in fact be traumatic, it’s a good idea to start thinking about how you can mitigate the risk of it happening.

Whether you have experienced such trauma in the past or not, understanding how to avoid allowing a bad performance to turn traumatic will be incredibly helpful.

When it comes to avoiding bad performance trauma, perspective is a major factor. We must learn how to change the way we view the situations we are in. That way, events that would normally affect us psychologically no longer hold as much power.

To best avoid bad performance trauma, there are three steps you can take:

Step 1: Define Success

How do you know if you’ve succeeded without a target to shoot for?

When going into a competition or a performance, you want to identify and define what success will be for you.

Do not make these result-oriented goals, but rather process goals. Think about all the factors that are in your control and define what it will mean for you to have a successful day.

A good way to do this is to split it up into physical and mental goals. Set two to three physical goals and two to three mental goals. This way, by the end you will be able to determine if the day was a success.

Step 2: Focus on the Positives First

After you have finished either a competition or a performance, it’s easy to begin focusing on the areas that went wrong. To avoid having the event turn traumatic, it’s important to have the mindset that you will first find some positives.

Before you allow yourself to become judgmental of your performance, seek out two to three positives that you can think of. These don’t have to be big either. But by identifying them you get your mind thinking more positively, rather than immediately becoming critical.

As a result, you will be less likely to become overwhelmed with negative emotions that can lead to the event having a lasting traumatic impression.

Step 3: Think, “What can I Learn?”

The third step is to have the mind of a student.

If you adhered to the previous two steps, then you should be in a great position to do this. You want to ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?”

What this does is allow you to turn any negatives that may have happened during the performance into an opportunity. We often learn best from our mistakes, so view each one as a way to improve yourself.

By properly using this step, any situation you run into can be turned into an opportunity to grow. No matter how negative it may seem to others, you know that you are only going to use it to make yourself better.

Final Thoughts

Yes, a bad performance can be a traumatic experience. It all depends upon the individual’s perspective and experience. If the situation causes intense negative emotions to arise, then there is a good chance trauma will result.

It’s important to understand that a bad performance can be traumatic so that you do not brush it under the rug. The first step towards progress is acceptance. You must be able to admit that the experience had a lasting impact on your mind if you hope to heal.

Also, by understanding that a bad performance has the potential to be traumatic, you can better prepare yourself.

What do you think? Can a bad experience be traumatic? I would love to hear your viewpoint, so please leave a comment below.

If you have any questions about bad performance trauma or any other performance psychology related topic, please feel free to reach out to me.

I hope that this article was helpful, and you have gained a better understanding of the traumatic nature a bad performance can have.

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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