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 or @jmcaddell on Twitter.  
load comments (7)
  • Richie Batista

    Fail everyday as much as possible until you start winning!

  • Mike Post

    It’s so interesting hearing of a tech perspective on sporting mentality… this is how I go about daily life, being an engineer with a sporting background. It’ll only benefit tech companies the more this mentality becomes known.

  • Michael Martel

    I like the way in baseball they say you need a short memory. Every time a pro baseball player goes to the plate or makes a play it has to be independent of the last time either good or bad. Now of course you can build on good performances and practices even more. I do think the trick is not to obsess or focus on the failures.

  • Sportified

    We at Sportified can recommend taking sports into your workflow and mindset. As a company which builds brands around athletes we are inspired through sports and athletes on a daily basis.

    It does help us as a creative team to adopt a sportsmindset. Striving for that medal, training harder and getting better every day. We support the statement saying a failure shouldn’t be a knockdown. You always have to look forward and learn from those failures which only make you smarter, stronger and better.

    Another example of sports and businesses and maybe some inspiration for you guys: when stuck or demotivated at work, work out! Go jog for a couple of miles, play some basketball even throwing darts helps clearing the mind and resetting your focus! It really doesn’t matter what you do as long as it is taking most of your body- and brain activity away from work. It is almost sports is able to drain your ‘stuck’ energy and refresh it when working out!

    Anyway, great to see 99U paying attention to sports. We hope you guys can give the world more inspiration through athletes!

  • Elizabeth Grace Saunders

    Well said! A lot of success in life is about tenacity–refusing to give up and keeping at it until we find something that works.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Smartone

    Perception is reality. Adam’s inner strength absorbed the negative and he came out stronger. Golf is like life…all seems random but actually all part of the plan to grow – you decide if the lesson is learnt or…not yet.

  • hersheyskat

    A great read – often the seeming setback gets in the way of the ‘learning’ that failure truly is. if one is present, failure opens up possible actions – major and minor corrections in approach that finally allow one to up the game. This article reminds me of the ‘inner game of tennis’ by Timothy where the coach illustrates how the game is won / or lost in the mind… as in golf, so in life

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