The inverted-U style of losing

 In Anxiety & Nerves, Coaches, Professional & Olympic Athletes, Winning & Losing

I don’t like to use the terms lost/lose. Why? Because they aren’t accurate and all these words do is make performers feel bad. It lowers confidence and motivation. Yes you may have lost the audition or lost a game but did you really lose? Lets put it another way: what did you gain? Besides looking at a less than expected outcome from the perspective of what did you gain what are some other healthy ways to deal with these situations?

What does a lose really mean

For most performers a loss really means that you aren’t good enough to win. As I’ve spent several blogs talking about (in different ways) for most performers there is winning and there is losing. As long as you are winning motivation, confidence and self-esteem are all high but as soon as you lose once what happens? All of those things go from high to low. That low is what people call a slump, writers block, choking and generally lead to a ‘losing streak’. A one time ‘loss’ (however you define it) can lead to continued dismal performances.

The ego is very fragile and for some performers losing, not getting positive feedback from coaches (especially if you’ve been getting it) and losing fan approval can unravel a career and quite quickly.

Why should losing get to have all of this attention and energy? If you have not had a chance to read some of my other blogs on this subject of ‘finding the gray’ go back and take a read. There are so many other ways to look at less than expected outcomes.

Inverted U

Generally when I use this theory it’s around talking about (general) performance anxiety and helping the athlete to find their perfect arousal state for their performance. However, I think this model also applies to arousal/energy around winning and losing. This states that arousal improves performance up to an optimal point (winning). Past this point, performance begins to decrease (losing). When drawn on a graph this appears as an upside down U shape. Most performers will experience anxiety/arousal issues due to losing confidence and self-esteem because of a loss or several losses in the form of a slump, writers block, choking or a ‘losing streak .

Extrinsic motivation

Although extrinsic motivation has gotten a bad rap there are some benefits to extrinsic motivation that can be initially helpful to performers. The problem is that performers get ‘used to’ getting these things and when they don’t, there is a struggle for the performer to ‘find these things’ and stay motivated. For example, if an athlete has been used to getting positive feedback and praise and that is withdrawn the it dampens the athletes motivation and confidence. It’s at this point that the athlete is always trying to figure out how to get the praise or rewards rather than putting that time and energy into their sport. It’s at this point that during a loss or period of losses that the athlete doesn’t not only know how to bring a higher level of performance back but how to deal with the loss and I think the above theory applies.

Extrinsic motivation comes from a source outside of the performer. These are things which can encourage a performer to perform and fall into two groups:

  • Tangible rewards: Physical rewards such as medals and money. These should be used sparingly to avoid a situation where winning a prize is more important than competing well.
  • Intangible rewards: Praise, recognition and achievements. These should be used to encourage a repeat certain behaviors.

Intrinsic motivation

In working with my clients I am finding that less and less of them are intrinsically motivated. Most of them are tied to the outcome, the negative feedback and what people think of them. The problem with all of these is that as a performer you have no control over these things, they change and they are based on someone else’s perspective.

Intrinsic motivation is from within. A desire to perform well and succeed. The following will be true:

  • Desire to overcome the problem or task
  • Development of skills and habits to overcome that problem
  • Rehearsal of successful habits until they are correct
  • A feeling of pride and enjoyment in performing the skill
  • Repeated goal setting in order to progress and maintain motivation
  • Performing for the fun and love of it

Tying this all together

Finding your intrinsic motivation for performing can be one of the best ways to not only perform and perform well but it leaves you less attached with and more able to deal with the outcome (winning or losing). It seems in my work that what I’ve found is that if an athlete is extrinsically motivated then losing is much more difficult to deal with.

Overcoming a loss

Some of the most helpful area’s I work with client’s to help build intrinsic motivation are in using mindfulness, tying them back to why they started doing what they are doing, performing from the heart and helping them to find the joy and love again. This is easier said than done! 🙂

Besides building intrinsic motivation, with loss comes a rebuilding of confidence, motivation, self-esteem and finding a new way to look at it.

Happy Monday!

Dr. Michelle

Photo credit:;

Recommended Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search