No competitor likes to lose, but the best competitors in virtually every sport seize a loss as an opportunity to improve. Even if you do not compete in martial arts, you can apply the same lesson to any challenge or undertaking: You are not shaped by a particular loss or failure, but by what you do with it.
Research conducted by Stanford psychology professor, Carol Dweck has shown that most people have one of two types of “mindset”: Fixed mindset or Growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that their positive traits and potential for success are essentially fixed. You have them – in whatever amount – or you do not. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset are more grounded in “possibilities.” They believe that positive traits and skills can be developed and that they can overcome failures to ultimately achieve success.
In rebounding from a loss, your mindset will affect how you understand and explain what happened. Developing some explanation – for yourself and for others – for the loss is usually the first step in determining whether and how you will move forward. Losing can be devastating for a fixed mindset competitor because they will assume they lost because they were “just not good enough.”
Georges St Pierre demonstrated the advantages of a growth mindset after losing his UFC title to Matt Serra. St Pierre consulted a sport psychologist who helped him realize that “it isn’t always the best team that wins the game, it’s the team that plays better.” GSP modified his personal explanation for the loss, saying: “I truly believe I’m the best fighter in the UFC but, that night, Matt Serra fought a better fight than me.”
When questioned about why he did not fight to his potential in that bout, Georges said: “I forgot what was my number one priority. My number one priority is to stay champion and being the best in the world. I forgot that. I paid for it, I made a mistake. But I’m the type of guy that never makes the same mistake twice.” Remarkably, his conclusion: “I truly believe that this loss is probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Being an effective competitor in martial arts (or doing any challenging task for that matter) requires that you develop faith in yourself and in your ability. Having faith means that you can believe in yourself when you are consistently landing your strikes and when you miss them. Faith “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Although you missed the last takedown attempt, you are confident that you will get the next one. The key to bouncing back from a loss is never to lose faith in yourself.
Different people recover from setbacks in different ways, but here is a quick formula that you can adapt to your own needs.
First, you will have to develop an explanation to “frame” and understand the loss. Try to explain it from a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. It is natural and acceptable to feel disappointment, but keep it in perspective and try not to let yourself wallow in it. Disappointment, not devastation. If you let yourself spiral down into a self-critical cycle, it will undermine your faith and confidence. Maintain your core belief in your ability, grieve the loss, and move on. Some athletes say that if you have never lost, you are not competing against the best people.
Second, develop a plan for what and how you can improve. If you identified any “holes” in your game, work with your coach or training partner on strategies to fix them. Reflect on your loss – not the emotional or self-critical element – but like an objective observer. If you were coaching yourself, what would make you better.
Third, envision that plan working. Once you have a clear explanation of what went wrong and an account of what needs to change, then spend some time visualizing what your game will look like after you successfully enact your plan. In your mind, take time to see and to feel the success of your plan. Image what you will be like when you have taken your game to the next level, then step inside that image. Experience the unwavering confidence and faith in your ability.
Finally, move forward with confidence. The loss was an event. You disappointment was just a mental event. It does not define you and it does not determine your future. Part of the “envisioning” is to set yourself mentally on a forward-moving path. That vision contains everything you need to retain from the past event. It is over and reliving the negative emotions will not enhance your performance.
Your task is to implement your plan with faith and a positive focus. Scientists suggest that the human brain is naturally “wired” to be negative. If you do not take control of your thoughts, images and emotions, you might have to spar a couple of more rounds with the “what ifs.” But you can thoughtfully direct what you say to yourself and the emotions that you generate. Reduce the negatives and create positive messages, images and emotions. With resilience, you can grow as a martial artist and create a mindset that will accelerate your path to success.
By Dr. Randy Borum
(Article first appears in Black Belt Magazine, April, 2008)