London 2012: Should athletes prepare for defeat?

By Stephanie Hegarty
BBC World Service

  • Published
Michael Phelps, Mark Cavendish and Suzy Favor Hamilton
Image caption,
The defeated: Michael Phelps, Mark Cavendish and Suzy Favor Hamilton

Until recently, sports psychology mainly focused on training the mind to win. But most Olympic competitors, including the very best like swimmer Michael Phelps and cyclist Mark Cavendish, lose. Now some experts believe that facing up to that prospect would save athletes from crushing disappointment.

Out of the 10,500 athletes battling for gold at London's Olympic Games, only 302 will win. The others will face the disappointment, anger and shame that comes with failure.

"Losing is often overlooked. Winning is celebrated but the pain of loss is very significant," says sports physician Jordan Metzl of the Sports Medicine Institute of Young Athletes in New York. "The shame and pressure of losing is a very strong emotion that athletes deal with for their entire careers."

Though most athletes will deal with loss in a healthy way, using their disappointment to inspire a harder training regime, for others losing is profoundly depressing.

"In the Olympics somebody gets second or third and that's not good enough," says three-time Olympic runner Suzy Favor Hamilton. "In some countries they are considered a failure. It's unfortunate in sport that the winner is the only one that really feels happy."

Hamilton is well-placed to describe the pain of loss. In 2000, she competed in the women's 1500m at the Sydney Olympics just three months after running the fastest time in the world, expected to win the first gold medal for an American middle-distance runner.

On the starting line, Hamilton says she felt the pressure of all the people who wanted her to win - her best friend Mary dying of cancer, her parents dealing with the suicide of her brother the year before, and her sponsors Nike, who had spent $1m (£650,000) on an advert featuring her.

With 100m to go in the race, a first runner passed her, then another. "These two girls took my dream and my life away," she says. "That moment I remember thinking, 'I can't not win this race - this is not how I planned this.'"

In a split second she decided to make herself fall.

"When my head hit the ground it was like a light turned on and I remember saying to myself, 'You're an idiot. You just fell in the Olympic finals, get up. You are a loser if you don't finish the race.'

"That was probably the first time I told myself I was a loser. So I got up and got over the finish line and felt the worst feeling I have ever felt. I felt like I let everybody down and it completely destroyed me."

Image caption,
After falling on purpose Hamilton feigned injury

Like many other athletes, she had never anticipated this feeling. "It was always, 'Suzy here's the plan, you are going to win the race,'" she says. "There was never the option that I wouldn't win."

The dominant belief 12 years ago was that to win, an athlete must have no doubt at all that it will happen.

She never told her coach she might not win. "That is a thought that you don't have. If you do have it you don't tell anybody because that shows weakness."

Hamilton began to train for the 2004 Olympics but pulled out at the last minute. The following year she began suffering from depression and reached a point where she contemplated suicide. With a history of mental illness in her family, Hamilton was perhaps more vulnerable to the effects of losing. But according to Metzl, her case is not at all unique.

For some athletes, one loss has changed the way they deal with their sport and casued problems for the rest of their lives, he says.

"Their only goal is succeeding in this one event which may last two or three minutes. That huge amount of pressure seven days a week, 18 hours a day, that's your focus. If every waking hour, you are thinking about that moment in your life and you don't succeed, just think about that pressure."

Experts like Metzl still believe that focusing on winning is an essential part of an athlete's psychology. It may not be possible or even helpful to convince an athlete to think any other way.

"If you think you're going to lose, you may well lose," says Metzl. "I don't think it's possible to prepare for a loss."

But recently many psychologists at the elite, Olympic level have championed a different approach. Peter Haberl is a senior psychologist on Team USA responsible for the mental well-being of its top Olympians. He believes thoughts of losing cannot be avoided.

His approach is influenced by the work of psychologist Daniel M Wenger and his well-known study on thought suppression known as the white bear experiment. Wenger proved that if you ask someone to avoid thinking of an arbitrary thought, such as a white bear, the bear will keep popping into their mind.

"The more you avoid a certain thought the more it is likely to surface," says Haberl. "I would encourage the athlete to confront issues head on, to understand that losing and winning are both part of the athlete experience."

If he senses an athlete is avoiding talking about the possibility of losing, he will steer their conversation to a place where they have to discuss it openly.

"Thoughts about losing, and winning for that matter, can detract the mind from staying present."

Haberl will work with athletes as they deal with losing after London 2012, especially those for whom the defeat was crushing or unexpected.

"To a certain extent it can be like stages of grieving," he says. "In that moment it is important to be present with an athlete and to help them understand that the moment, though it is extremely painful, will pass."

The extent to which an athlete is affected by loss depends on various factors. According to Metzl, having interests outside of their sport helps. He also finds differences in gender - female athletes are more likely to blame themselves when they lose. And in team sports, there is more support.

Though there are no statistics on how many athletes suffer depression after losing, Haberl says there is plenty of anecdotal evidence.

Over the next few months he will be watching to see how his athletes are coping with life after the Games.

"Most athletes do lose, it's normal to be disappointed," he says. "It's not normal to be depressed three months later."