Good Sport? The Psychology Behind Losing
UNLV sports psychologist Brad Donohue on Netflix docuseries "Losers" and a new mental health approach to helping athletes find the silver lining after loss.
Newswise — Heavyweight boxer Michael Bentt. French competitive figure skater Surya Bonaly. Golfer Jean van de Velde. Marathoner Mauro Prosperi.
"Losers," a new eight-part Netflix original docuseries, gives viewers access to athletes behind some of the world's most well-publicized sports defeats and the surprisingly sweet life lessons they found in failure.
We asked UNLV sports psychologist Brad Donohue — a former competitive boxer himself — to watch the series and offer his perspective on one of the series' recurring themes: The importance of mental wellness for athletes before ever competing, and its role in navigating the range of emotions they felt after their loss and the public fallout.
Donohue is the creator of The Optimum Performance Program in Sports (TOPPS), which blends traditional mental health services with sport culture and customized performance coaching — essentially meeting athletes where they are to develop ways to enhance both mental wellness and performance. The program conducted the first National Institutes of Health-funded mental health study involving college athletes. And the TOPPS mission is growing. Donohue and his students work closely with UNLV Athletics, as well as with partners across the campus, region, and internationally.
Q: The documentary claims we live in a "winner-take-all society where losing is laughed off, dismissed, and shamed." What are your thoughts on society's view of loss and the pressures today's athletes feel to win?
A: I think there is some truth to that statement: Negative public reactions to big athletic losses have been around since the beginning of sport. However, I think most of our society reacts to losing most of the time in a civil manner and wouldn't find laughing, dismissing, and shaming an athlete for losing as acceptable behavior.
The hurtful part of criticism now as compared to the past is perhaps that the internet and media have made it increasingly possible for fans to know more about athletes, so their criticism is often more personal. Kids are also entering sport much younger, when it's developmentally hard for them to manage criticism, and most athletes are now focusing on one sport in order to be competitive. Therefore, fewer options are available if they have a physical injury or become bored or frustrated with their sport. Having fewer options intensifies the sting of criticism.
Q: Several "Losers" interviewees cite the importance of mental fortitude in helping them turn the agony of defeat into triumph. Why is mental wellness important for athletes?
A: One of the advantages of sport participation is that it speeds up the learning process in life by routinely creating pressure situations that provide opportunities to develop focused, objective thinking that has a positive bent. These are optimum thinking patterns that generalize from sport settings to real-world scenarios, like taking a math test in school or managing an upset co-worker. The intensity of sport also creates opportunities for athletes to develop behavioral skills, such as those required to build strong relationships with teammates. Again, these skills are likely to generalize to real-world settings.
Interestingly, life skills also have an impact on sport performance. For instance, a successful marriage usually improves focus in sport and problem-solving skills learned in a psychology class may assist a wide receiver in determining an optimal route. Emotions, thought patterns, and actions in general life and sport settings are intertwined. The task at hand changes across these settings, but the process needed for performance optimization is largely the same. In an optimization approach, like TOPPS, the objective is to establish optimal patterns of thinking and behaving using positive and inspiring methods without a focus on criticism. Indeed, criticism destroys creativity and effort.
Q: Is it sometimes therapeutic to reflect on defeat?
A: Athletes can, and do, learn from their losses and mistakes. In most elite athletes, such as the ones in this brilliant documentary series, losses act to increase motivation and signal that something in their tool set has to be adjusted.
Learning after loss usually occurs when athletes are able to objectively focus on the process that could be improved while keeping in mind their positive efforts. In an optimization approach the athlete would be taught, whenever possible, not to think about the loss, or things associated with the it immediately after the event. Rather, the focus should be on things unrelated to the defeat immediately after the event or positive things that were performed in the loss.
One of the reasons for this is that memory, particularly during stressful or emotional situations, will be amplified for things that are judged to be important. If an athlete focuses on things that were done wrong when emotion or passion is high immediately after a loss, the attention to problem behavior makes it more likely that the mistakes could negatively affect future performance in similar situations — a phenomenon more commonly known as "choking." Teaching athletes to focus first on things done well, and subsequently things that could be done more optimally, puts attention and memory on the positives.
Q: You're expanding the TOPPS program to athletes as young as grade-school age. Why?
A: In our previous studies, the family-based approach underlying TOPPS was shown to be effective with emerging adult collegiate athletes. However, in the general population it appears to be particularly effective in youth, and parents have been reported by youth to be their greatest influence in sport performance. Therefore, we think adolescent athletes will find TOPPS especially exciting and effective due to its emphasis on sport. We also believe TOPPS will expedite the learning curve that naturally happens in sport through its overarching goals, such as doing good deeds for others, focusing on positive thoughts, and school performance.