Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Performing Under Pressure: What We Can Learn From Athletes

In August 2012, golfer Adam Scott shot four consecutive bogeys to close his final round, losing a four-stroke lead and the British Open by one shot, the biggest meltdown in the tournament since 1999. Just eight months later, Scott displayed a champion’s grit and a surgeon’s touch in winning The Masters tournament, the Super Bowl of golf tournaments. Scott the choker was now Scott the clutch performer on his sport’s biggest stage.

What happened?

After his Masters victory, Scott explained that his British Open experience didn’t shake his confidence. Rather, “it did give me more belief that I could win a major tournament. It proved to me, in fact, that I could.”

When we fail, there’s nothing we can do to erase the past. But we can manage our mindset and actions going forward. How we view the failure has everything to do with our ability to bounce back.

Scott’s mental approach to overcoming his British Open failure relied on reframing the experience. While critics wondered whether he’d ever again have the chance to compete in a major, Scott instead chose to view it as a stepping stone, a proof point that he was capable of winning a major. This reframing allowed him to tune out the critics and maintain, even strengthen, his confidence after the setback.

First, Scott convinced himself that the most important holes he had played at the British Open were the first 68 – the ones that allowed him to open up a four-stroke lead in a major championship – rather than the last four. Those first 68 holes demonstrated that he had the game to win a major.

Scott instead chose to view it as a stepping stone, a proof point that he was capable of winning a major.

Second, Scott appreciated that, once you are in contention, the things that separate winning from losing are often out of your own control. What other golfers do matters. So does the external environment. Sometimes, it’s just not your tournament to win, and that doesn’t have any bearing on your ability to win one the next time.

If you believe this kind of reframing is delusional, let me set down a few more examples for you. Michael Jordan’s teams lost to the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs three years in a row before winning the first of their six NBA championships. Lebron James lost in the finals twice before breaking through last year. John Elway lost three Super Bowls before winning two at the end of his career. Winning changes the past – the prior defeats are drained of meaning.

Adam Scott could have taken the critics to heart after his British Open failure. “What a chance I squandered. How my life would’ve changed if I could have just parred two of those holes! Perhaps I’m not cut out to win a major.”

But he didn’t ruminate. He didn’t view the failure as proof that he couldn’t win a major. He viewed it as proof that he could.  And he was right. He showed that to himself and everyone else.

It’s important to learn and improve from failures, and to do so requires assessing clearly and dispassionately what you need to do better going forward. But to triumph after a setback, it’s also important to put your own frame on the situation, a frame that describes the setback as part of a journey toward a future, even greater, success, instead of the end of the story.

How about you?

How do you reflect on a failure and use it as fuel to move forward?

More insights on: Failure

John Caddell

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John Caddell is the author of “The Mistake Bank” and contributed to the most recent 99u book. His latest project is 3-Minute Journal. John also organizes the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. You can reach him at mistakebank.com or @jmcaddell on Twitter.  
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