How to Help Athletes Deal Winning and Losing

October 10, 2018

Sport involves a considerable amount of competition which provides challenges and opportunities for players to grow both as an athlete and an individual. However, when too much focus is put on the outcome of competition, an athlete’s skills and abilities may suffer resulting in poor performances. When winning becomes the most important aspect of playing sports, athletes begin to experience performance anxiety or could lose their drive to continue playing as the pressure makes losing unbearable.

The Role of Emotions

Athletes feel a wide range of emotions after both a win or a loss. A player can feel confident, happy, and excited after a win. After a loss, the player may be sad, angry, and frustrated. These emotions can have consequences in how athletes behave, practice, and compete. It is not uncommon to see a player overcome with emotions after a game or match, they could be crying or too upset to listen to those trying to help them. Athletes can also ruminate on their negative thoughts, replaying their mistakes and missed opportunities long after the competition ended.

The negative thoughts that result after a loss can impact athletes both physically and mentally. Negative emotions can lead to higher muscle tension, lowered energy levels, and difficulty breathing. Mentally, negative emotions can lead to drops in self-confidence, self-esteem, and enjoyment. Inability to focus and the use of positive self-talk can also suffer after a loss. The negative impact that losing can have on the athlete and their performance makes it important to help athletes positively cope with their emotions.

What Can a Coach Do?

Coaches can help their athletes learn how to cope and control their emotions so they can avoid feeling overwhelmed and let their emotions influence their behaviors on the field or court. As a coach you can help your athletes learn how to handle both winning and losing in a positive way.

To help your athletes positively cope with both winning and losing:

  • Encourage a healthy sport perspective.

Encourage athletes to keep a healthy perspective of their sport experience. Players can put too much emphasis on winning and losing when they are concentrating solely on their sport.  Often times, up and coming players will sacrifice other aspects of their life, such as their social life, to improve their skills.  This lack of perspective and balance can high levels of pressure and an unhealthy relationship with the sport.

  • Reward effort.

When in competition, practice, or training, put an emphasis on the effort that your athlete is giving. Encourage your athletes to give maximum effort when they play. After a match or game, spend time discussing with your athletes how they performed, their effort level, and whether they showed good sportsmanship. Allow the athlete to bring up the outcome on their own.

  • Focus on the process.

By putting a focus on the process rather than the outcome will help your athletes feel more in control of their participation. Your athletes do not always have control over the result of a match or game, however they do have control over their own skill improvement. Reminding players of their goals and what they need to do to reach their goals is one area in which they can control. Use their process goals as a tool to help them focus on their own performance rather than the outcome of the match or game.

  • Appreciate the individual.

Athletes need to feel appreciated and valued as an individual, not just as an athlete. When talking with your athletes, ask them about their interests outside of the sport. Inquire about their friends, family, school, and other habits.  This shows the athletes that they are valued for more than just their sport skills and performance on the court or field.


Written by Dr. Jennifer Nalepa, Assistant Professor in the Sport Coaching and Leadership Online Programs at Michigan State University