The end of a competitive season is, for every athlete, a time of reckoning in which you look back and evaluate what kind of season you had: one to be proud of or one to reflect back on with disappointment and perhaps regret.
Not surprisingly, one of the primary criteria that athletes use to judge their seasons is their results, for example, depending on their sport, their won-los record, placings, and end-of-season rankings. Here is a simple calculus that, like most athletes, you probably use to determine what kind of season you had:
- Very good won-loss record, high placings, much improved ranking = Successful season
- Decent win-loss record, moderate placings, slightly improved ranking = Okay season
- No change = Disappointing season
- Poor won-loss record, low placings, worse ranking = Devastating season
Let me say this upfront. If you are judging your season only on your results, you are making a big mistake. But, before I explain why I believe this bold statement to be so, let’s take a reality break.
Results matter in sports. You don’t get ahead by working hard (though great effort is certainly required) or by being a nice person. You progress up the competitive food chain by getting good results. You qualify for more competitive series and get named to teams almost exclusively based on your results (yes, in some cases, there are discretionary picks, but you don’t want to leave your success in the hands of others). And let’s be even more honest. Psychologically and emotionally, you may base a good part of your self-identity as an athlete (maybe too much) on your results.
A problem is that, for those with high aspirations, such as competing in college or aspiring to the Olympic or professional ranks, plateaus or declines in results from year to year can mean the end, or at least a major setback, for those aspirations. And your reaction can range from disappointment (which can be motivating) to devastating (which can be deflating).
This singular obsession with results can blind you to other criteria of success that demonstrate real progress even if you get the results you want every year. It can also prevent you from seeing your season in the broader context of your long-term goals. Additionally, when you focus too much on your results, you keep yourself from recognizing that sports are definitely not a linear experience, meaning progress isn’t steady or consistent. It’s more like the stock market in which it can have terrible years, okay years, and outstanding years. But, if you step back and look at the stock market with a big-picture perspective over a number of years (as you should look at your sports career), what you notice is that it continues to climb steadily.
The frustrating fact is that sports progress often occurs in fits and starts influenced by a variety of factors including your physical and psychological development, your coaching, the arc of your skill development, as well as those outside of your control such as the improvement of your competitors and injuries.
Also, improving your results is often outside of your control. To the contrary, opportunities to get good results have as much to do with luck as how you’re performing. Over the years, I’ve seen athletes make huge jumps in their results for reasons as fluky as fog lifting, wind dying down, and a better competitor making a costly mistake. Of course, you still have to perform well, but performing your best isn’t always enough. Conversely, I’ve seen what appear to be incredible opportunities for a good result dissolve for the same reasons I just mentioned.
As an example of how defining your season based on your results can cause you to miss real progress in your athletic development, I have worked with a highly ranked athlete for several years who didn’t improve her ranking the previous season. At the end of the season, she was really disappointed and felt that the season had been a failure. Though I empathized with her feelings (that’s what shrinks do), I also attempted to provide a different perspective (also what shrinks do) that would demonstrate to her that her season was actually quite successful. I pointed out that she had some good results in a new and higher competitive series, was much closer to the top girls, and, for anyone who watched her, she was performing far better than the previous season.
Now, you may be wondering how she has done this season. Let’s take a look. She scored her first top-ten in a major national competition, was named to represent the U.S. in a prestigious international competition, had a breakthrough performance at her sport’s national championships, and, yes, she improved her ranking significantly.
So, was she being fair to herself in her assessment of her performances the previous year? No way.
So, I suggest that you broaden your definition of what constitutes a good season beyond your results. What should you look at and what questions should you ask? Here are a few ideas.
- Am I stronger this season than I was last season?
- Am I better technically and tactically?
- Am I mentally stronger: more motivated, confident, intense, and focused?
- Am I closer to my competitors than last year?
Improvement in these essential contributors to athletic performance don’t always lead immediately to better results. Sometimes it takes time for all of these necessary factors related to improved results to gel. It can sometimes take more than one season for the many pieces of the performance puzzle to all come together.
As the saying goes, “One bad season doth not a career make (or break).” Actually, I just made that up, but you get the point.
Sure, you’re going to be disappointed if you don’t improve your results and rankings this season. But don’t let it devastate you and don’t let it cause you to give up on your dream. Be patient, stay committed, and, at some point, good things will happen, including the results you are looking for.