Gold Medalist Olympian on Negativity and Coping with Defeat

In this part of my series with Olympian Barbara Ann Cochran we talk about applying sports psychology tactics to the SAT and ACT. In this article we’ll be looking at overcoming negativity and failure. Let’s jump right in.


Addressing Negativity: Horizontal Improvement

EK: How do you address negativity?

BAC: Negativity is a tough one.  I’m not a psychologist so I probably don’t have the whole picture, but the athlete has to understand that choosing to operate from a place of negativity is a choice he or she is making.  When I was coaching field hockey, I never would let an athlete say, “I can’t do that!”  I always told them, “You may not be able to do it as well as you’d like to, but YES, YOU CAN DO IT!!!” I wanted the girls to begin to believe that they had the skill, and with practice they would improve.  I certainly didn’t expect them to execute skills perfectly—I just expected them to try to execute the skills.  As a coach, I was constantly pointing out the things they could do.

In athletics, it’s important to realize that when we’ve actually improved, often our timing is off which causes mistakes. I want my athletes to know that they still are moving from one plateau level to the next.  Sometimes when you don’t see the improvement, the movement is horizontal.  An athlete still has to move across a plateau of competency before he can move up.


EK: I love that idea… that we have to move across plateaus of competency before we are able to move up again. I see this all the time with my students–there is always a stretch of time between the moment a student achieves competency in any particular area and when he has mastered that skill and is ready to build on it. Great image.

Getting to the Root of the Belief

BAC: Right. When I’m looking into an athlete’s negative attitude I also want to know what is it that they believe makes them different—what makes them inferior?  That’s often a deep belief that’s hard to get to.  With a couple of athletes (my daughter being one), I explained that I believe we all have an inner child that experiences our fears.  It’s like there’s the little kid inside of us that reacts to whatever is causing our insecurities.  I try to have them get in touch with their inner child.  The important message is to let that child know that you hear them and are willing to talk to them to find out what is going on with them.  I suggest that the athlete tell them they are ok just the way they are, that the athlete loves them just the way they are, and whatever they do, it is enough. The first time I did it with my daughter, she won her race the next day.

Acknowledging the Fear

EK: I see. So you’re using a way for someone to separate her competitive self from the scared person within– that’s a great way of empowering the competitive self and putting the nervous self aside. It’s almost like separate personalities, but I can absolutely imagine myself in a stressful situation thinking “Ok! We’re going to get through this!” So, where do you think competitors get the idea that they’re not as good as the next guy?

BAC: When I was racing, I used to think about this.  At first I held the Europeans in such high esteem.  Then I started to think, “what makes them so much better than me?”  When I looked at them, they didn’t seem so different.  I used to picture them getting dressed in the morning and my realization was that I got dressed the same way they did—I put my ski pants on one leg at a time.  It sounds kind of crazy, but that was my way to humanize them and realize that whatever they could do, I could, too.

Ultimately, what I’ve found with negativity is that the athlete has to address it and accept that it is part of them and then they can deal with it.  If they try to ignore it or just change it, the negativity stays with them. Negativity can be connected to their fears, whatever they are, so to release those and start to handle them, they first have to acknowledge that they’re there.  Once an athlete acknowledges the fear, it loses some of its power.

Dealing with a Difficult Loss

EK: This is amazing advice! So let me ask you about what I always consider the trickiest scenario: what is the main piece of advice you tell someone with natural ability who has had a difficult or defeating season?

BAC: When someone is having a difficult or defeating season, I remind them that they haven’t lost their skills.  They’re still there, it’s just a matter of accessing them.  We explore what may be happening to see what’s changed.  We talk about what they felt like when they performed really well and what they felt like when the results didn’t go so well, especially if they could recall what they felt before they started the competition.

I explain the inner climate and the importance of identifying what emotions they are experiencing as though they were an athlete who had not yet experienced high levels of success.  All emotions have different energy levels attached to them; they also can be pleasant or unpleasant.  So we talk about the emotions they’re experiencing and figure out if it’s high or low energy and pleasant or unpleasant.  The body performs best when the athlete is experiencing emotions that are high energy and pleasant (enjoyment, excitement, loving what they’re doing, having fun, taking pride in themselves, etc.)

I just ask questions to find out what they’re thinking and feeling and maybe what beliefs they have about themselves as an athlete and their performance.  I give them tasks to do (like memorizing the course, visualizing, thinking specific thoughts at the start, etc.)  It’s harder to get nervous when you’re thinking about what you have to do to get a good start or get through the course.  I suspect everyone gets nervous, but if you’re focusing on the skills you need to execute, you can keep the nerves under control.

EK: I think that’s a great last point– if you’re focusing on the skills you need to execute, you can keep the nerves under control. And you’re right, acknowledging the fear is a great way to diffuse some of what we perceive as its control over us. Thanks, Barbara Ann!


Elizabeth KingComment