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How to Be a Better Loser

By Molly Hurford | September 29, 2020 | Rally Health

It's been a year, right? We've all experienced disappointments. Unfortunately, losing is a part of life. Sometimes goals just don’t pan out.

The good news is, every loss offers an opportunity for learning. Pro athletes know this well. Below, Rally Cycling’s top racers — plus team sports psychologist Kristin Keim, MA, PsyD, CMPC — reveal their tips for losing gracefully and learning from life's tough breaks.

Give yourself some space

After months of training, everything went wrong in your first half marathon. Or perhaps you weren’t chosen for a key project at work. It’s OK to take a minute to be bummed. When you fall short of a goal you’ve been working toward for a long time, it can be hard to control your emotions. “You might be feeling a little hot-headed,” says longtime Rally Cycling rider Ryan Anderson. “But you can’t yell or smash your helmet. You need to figure out how to stay calm.” Keim suggests peeling off and cooling down with a walk, jog, or spin away from where the crowds are. If you’re at the office, carve out time for a quick solo stroll to clear your head.

Be a good sport 

In youth sports, children are told to congratulate their opponents after a loss. But when was the last time you high-fived a competitor after a 5K? Even if you don’t feel like cheering, keep your chin up. “I don’t like when a race doesn’t go well,” says Olympic hopeful Emma White. “But I still try to smile at the finish line, because when you’re smiling, it’s easier to start feeling positive instead of staying upset.” 

You don’t have to be a professional to be a good sport. Stick around the finish line after a 10K to cheer on other racers and enjoy the camaraderie that comes with completing a challenge together. At work, if a colleague got the promotion you wanted, send her a congratulatory message. Fake a smile if you have to. A famous study from the 1980s hypothesized that flashing a grin could initiate feelings of happiness. Recently, researchers from around the world worked on improving that original study’s design to get more accurate results. Their work is ongoing, but findings from two pilot studies suggest that indeed, the act of smiling may help you feel happier. Anyway, it can’t hurt to try.  

Seek support 

When you’re ready, tap your support network. “Not isolating yourself is huge. Family, friends, teammates, coaches, sport psychologists — they’re the ones that get you through the tough days,” says new Rally cyclist Chloe Hosking, Australia’s criterium national champion. Hosking relies on her family and husband as well as her teammates to help her stay positive. 

Remember how wonderful it is to have people in your life who are rooting for you. “Don’t forget to be grateful for them,” says Keim. Acknowledging their support can “help you feel better.” Set aside time every day to think about that. Research suggests that keeping up a daily gratitude practice can improve your sense of well-being and possibly also contribute to better physical health. Many studies over the years have attempted to figure out the latter. The research is mixed — but some of it suggests that an “attitude of gratitude” can make us feel better in our bodies. One small study, for example, of patients with heart failure found that those who scored highest on a gratitude questionnaire enjoyed better sleep and mood and showed lower levels of inflammation than those who scored lower. 

Take time to reflect

Being sad or upset with a race result or professional failure and wanting to get better means you truly care about what you’re doing, Keim notes. Having ambitions can be healthy. Research out of Harvard Business School has found that workers who perceived that they made progress in their work felt more upbeat and motivated.

Rally cyclists use a helpful little exercise after a poor finish, says longtime Rally Cycling racer Sarah Bergen. “After every race, our racers each have to write down three things that went well, and then what didn’t go according to plan.” You can do this even without a team, whether you’re training for some athletic challenge or striving toward a professional goal: After a workout or competition or, say, a presentation or project at work, write down what went well and what you can work on. That way, the next time you compete or present, you can look back at your notes and see your progress. 

“It's kind of humbling when you don’t perform as planned, but it makes you go back to the drawing board,” says cyclist Stephen Brennan. “You have to see what led to that result.” Consider each loss a stepping stone, he says, getting you to where you want to go.  

Make a plan

“If I have a tangible action plan to improve, I feel motivated by failure,” says racer Krista Doebel-Hickok, “rather than beat myself up.” Use your notes as a motivational tool and create an action plan for next time. Come up with small, realistic goals. Sick of being the only one in your fitness class who has to do the easier, modified moves? Next week, aim to do just one of the more challenging exercises, rather than all of them. If you’re trying to rise at work, aim to nail one new, feasible objective a week –– like contributing a high-quality idea at a weekly brainstorm, or strengthening a relationship with a colleague over coffee, one on one. The more you hit the small goals you set, the likelier you are to feel confident and prepared the next time you lace up for your exercise class or sit down with your co-workers for an ideas session. Even if things don’t go as planned, “you won’t be as sad if you know you crossed your T's and dotted your I’s in your training,” says Keim.  

The bottom line

Remember, just inching toward a goal is a victory in itself. Don’t get hung up on always winning. Being able to move your body and think big with your brain is a gift. Focus on how darn good it feels — and also, how fun.

Molly Hurford
Rally Health