Dealing with Defeat
How to effectively handle feelings associated with loss and defeat.
By Kathy Korell-Rach, Ph.D.
Winning is splendid and something that we all strive to attain. When we lay our entry fees on the line, we want paychecks, glory, and buckles in return. Without this desire, we would not be performing at the top of our games. But, we all get outrun at some point. Even when our barrel racing careers are at their highest points, we can still make a mistake, our trusty steed might have an "off" day, or someone else just has a barn-burning run. Defeat is hard for anyone who has a competitive drive. However, effectively managing how loss impacts you can help you to have the wherewithal to continue competing.
Handling defeat is one of the most challenging, demanding, and tricky things that we must do as competitors. At some point in our barrel racing experience, we have likely been less than graceful in the face of loss. Each of us has our own struggles and our own "default" for unhealthy ways that we respond when we are beat. Step one is realistically acknowledging what our defaults are so that we can be prepared to notice, attend to, and modify them to be more helpful. The following are examples of common unhelpful reactions to losing. Which categories apply the most to you?
The Giver-Upper: Giver-uppers react to loss with disappointment, sadness, and despair. They tend to have perfectionist standards and attribute their defeat entirely to internal factors. Often, they conclude that a loss means that they will never be successful because they are fundamentally flawed or untalented. Giver-uppers sometimes feel hopeless about improving and can lose motivation to keep racing. They are at risk for withdrawing from competition or the sport entirely at some point.
The Sore Loser: Sore losers feel anger toward others after a loss and attribute their defeat to factors outside of themselves. They tend to blame anything possible other than themselves. Sore losers complain unnecessarily about ground conditions, race management and other competitors. Ground conditions might actually be less than prime and the race really may not have been managed well. However, rather than accepting the reality of the circumstances (good or bad), they focus almost exclusively on how it was "not fair" for them and hold onto this anger for extended periods of time.
The Fighter: Fighters also experience anger in response to loss. However, this anger is inappropriately directed onto other people or animals. They may feel out of control of their anger and behave in unacceptable ways while angry. Fighters may experience "temper tantrums" where they throw tack around, verbally berate their hauling partners or competition, or strike their horses. Shame and embarrassment for how they acted while angry is common after aggressive outbursts have subsided.
The Woe Is Me-er: Woe is me-ers also attribute their lack of success to external factors, but feel dejected and despondent instead of angry. They believe that factors outside of their control, such as luck or fate, are always responsible for the loss. Woe is me-ers feel little control over the outcome of a race and may believe they are being punished by some force. As a result, they feel sorry for themselves and do not make changes to overcome whatever is actually responsible for defeat.
The Ruminator: Ruminators can feel a variety of emotions, including anxiety, sadness, and frustration. The core component is that they do not "let go" easily. Just as cattle chew their cud, ruminators replay aspects of a run over and over in their minds. They usually berate themselves for their own mistakes, obsessively think about how the run "should" have gone, and overanalyze the situation to the point of confusion about what actually happened.
Change your response
Now that you have an idea about unhelpful ways that you respond to defeat, you can make some positive changes. Use your predominant emotion as a "warning sign" to be on the lookout for reactions that are not beneficial. When this emotion first occurs, follow these steps to more effectively manage loss:
1. Feel the emotion. We are going to have unpleasant emotions in response to loss. It is inevitable! However, emotions are not the problem; what we do with emotions is what differentiates helpful from unhelpful responses. Start by going to a quiet place by yourself and observe body sensations associated with the emotion. Emotions often involve changes in facial expression, muscle tension, heart rate, digestive system sensations (e.g., "clenched" stomach), and temperature changes in various parts of the body. Imagine that you are outside of your body and are watching these emotions and sensations. Picture them as a tidal wave, and watch them rise and fall. You are a surfer riding the wave instead of being submerged in the crashing forces of the water below. Your emotion is likely to feel more manageable as a result of just this exercise. Please do not minimize the importance of first acknowledging and feeling the emotion.
2. Express your emotion in a healthy way. Emotions that are pushed away or ignored usually wind up coming out "sideways" in manners that are unhelpful or damaging to yourself or others. This also contributes to resorting back to unhealthy ways of responding to defeat. Find ways to express emotions in a productive way. Some examples include journaling, art or crafts, talking to a friend, prayer, walking or exercising, grooming your horse, cleaning your horse trailer, or oiling your saddle. The list of ways to express emotions is limitless, so experiment with what works for you. Make sure that your emotion is being conveyed in a healthy way that you will not feel shameful about later.
3. Decide it is time to move on and go. We do not want to get "stuck" in our emotions because this blocks us from moving forward. Once you identify, feel and express your emotions in response to defeat, it is time to move along. We do this by examining what happened, gaining experience and making a commitment to doing our best at the next race.
First, realistically look at what happened in the run and decide where to place the "blame." There is a reason that you did not win and it is helpful to first place it into a category:
<>Something I did: Forgot to check for the first barrel; not being mentally prepared, etc.
<>Something my horse did: He saw a notorious "spook" at first; is green in competition, etc.
<>External circumstances: Poor ground conditions; my run was great but someone else just had a faster run, etc.
Notice that I did not say to berate yourself, be angry with your horse or feel upset about the environment. We are simply identifying the cause of the defeat and this is best assessed in a rational and neutral emotional state. The cause does not contribute to unhealthy coping. However, what we believe about what the cause means can certainly lead us to have an unhelpful reaction to loss. For example, the cause for defeat today is that your horse scotched all the way to the second barrel. This does not mean that you are a horrible trainer, that your horse will never be confident, or that someone intentionally placed landmines on the outside of the arena at second. It means that your horse scotched to second. Period.
Now, examine whatever accounted for the loss and learn from it. Decide if it is something that you can or cannot control. If you can control it, commit to taking the steps to correct it for next time. If your horse scotched to second, then haul to more arenas. If you forgot to check for first, then try visualization. If you disliked the ground, then don't go back to that arena. If you cannot control it, accept that it happened and that there is nothing you could have done about it. Chalk it up to the nature of the game and keep on trucking.
It's important to view each loss as an isolated experience. If you have had a string of bad runs, it's easy to slide into one of the unhealthy ways we respond to defeat. If you see this loss as only one run, you can more easily focus on getting something positive from it that will assist you down the road.
Learning to effectively manage defeat takes time and training. Be patient with yourself and the process. I'll try to do the same.
Meet Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach
Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and owns Country Counseling, LLC in Loveland, Colo. For more information, visit www.countrycounselingllc.com. She competes for Bar Three Stables by running homegrown horses sired by nationally ranked barrel horse sire Smoke N Sparks.
Disclaimer: This information should not be considered a therapeutic intervention and no client-therapist relationship is established by reading this article.