Sport-Specific Coping Skills after a Setback

Have you ever felt like you were stuck and unable to get better no matter how hard you tried at a sport? Well this happens to many people and these setbacks can come from more than just sports. Poor performance, lack of improvement, and  injury are some of the most common setbacks that athletes can experience.  Repetitive poor performances make it difficult for any athlete to play. They feel frustrated and disappointed in their own performance following and haunting their minds. This is the sign of a performance plateau, in which athletes feel like they put so much time and effort, only to see no improvement. However, the worst setbacks are injuries. Not only do injuries stop progress, but sometimes, they can even worsen it. Some find that they are never able to recover from injuries because they rush too soon back into their sport or because they don’t feel that they can catch up to the level they were playing at before. Nonetheless, injuries are learning opportunities for the physical boundaries of one’s body as well as a moment to take a break and relax.

The Aftermath

Feelings that follow an injury can differ from being shocked and shutting down or becoming angry and upset. Negative emotions will always follow setbacks, but avoiding them and hiding your feelings or disappointment is not healthy either. The moment one of these painful feelings emerges, and you let that negative emotion build up inside you;  the more it’s going to hurt later. A build up can feel like a mountain of self hatred or self criticism which hinders your ability to rebound back. The better you can manage these feelings, the faster your recovery and future athletic potential will be. 

Research done at the University of British Columbia shows that finding ways to cope differs for both genders. Female athletes are more likely to show more emotion-focused coping, while male athletes use more problem-focused coping. Emotion focused can be a gut feeling of why you did things wrong while a problem-focused coping is more analytical of their performance. Many of the athletes surveyed also reported that self-criticism was prevalent for their recovery from a setback. Learning to be self-critical allowed them to move forward and past the mistakes that originally hurt them. However, if this self-critical lens is not used in a positive way, it could lead to self-doubt, an obsession, and difficulty in letting go.

Importance of Self-Compassion

Being able to be self-compassionate is a big part of recovering from a setback. In order to be self-compassionate, you have to be able to learn that the failure or disappointment you felt should not turn into a moment of judging or criticizing yourself. You must turn into your own number one supporter in order to thrive from a setback. Treat yourself like how you would treat your teammates if you saw them trying to cope with an injury or defeat!

Being able to self-compassionate and adopt a growth mindset is also often the difference between how elite athletes and regular athletes deal with failure. By starting with a self-compassionate mindset, they are able to turn that into a growth mindset and utilize a growth mindset to learn from their mistakes, rather than obsessing over them. At higher levels, they are actually able to use the setback to their advantage and improve themselves positively.

Screen Shot 2021-04-05 at 5.14.13 PM.png

The best way of coping after the setback involves many small steps.

  1. Reflect and breathe. It’s always okay to take some time to yourself and reflect on this setback through constructive criticism.

  2. Accept this setback. Take some time to recognize your mistakes and understand that perfection should not be a reality. In some cases, striving for perfection can actually negatively affect your performance and put too much pressure on yourself.

  3. Let your feelings out. Talk to someone who you know will be supportive like a teammate, coach, and/or parent about your feelings and why you feel this way. If you are uncomfortable with reaching out to someone and sharing, writing these thoughts on a piece of paper or in a journal can also help.

  4. Practice self-compassion. Find a way to incorporate self-compassion into your training. While the physical elements of sports might seem more important, the mental aspects should always be discussed and improved upon as well.

  5. Move on. While this step might be the hardest, moving past and letting go of the setback is very important. Recognize that everyone goes through this and you can use this setback to help reach your fullest potential.

Screen Shot 2021-04-05 at 5.14.19 PM.png

 As the great basketball player Michael Jordan once said:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. 

And that is why I succeed.”

Works Cited

Brown, M. (2016, April 8). Research shows that athletes who accept loss are best prepared to win. Medical Press. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from

Managing Athlete Stress. (n.d.). Metrifit. Retrieved March 28, 2021, from

michaeljordanart. (2020, May 19). Michael Jordan [Photograph]. Medium.

Mosewich, A. D., Crocker, P. R.E., & Kowalski, K. C. (n.d.). Managing injury and other setbacks in sport: experiences of (and resources for) high-performance women athletes.

Sorlet, L. (2019, February 14). Self-Compassion [Photograph]. The New York Times.

Ward, D. (2014, January 30). Coping with a Setback the Sensitive Way. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from


Middle School vs High School vs Collegiate Athletics


Why Sleeping Makes You a Better Athlete, Mentally & Physically