Why frustration should be your best friend 

Hybrid Performance Method
August 30, 2019

Read Time: 8 min

Key Points

  • Setbacks and obstacles may be an inevitable part of the path to peak performance
  • But they don’t need to hold you back
  • Shifting your perception can help to turn these into something you can use to your advantage
  • Two strategies you can employ to achieve this: mindfulness and self-compassion

Embracing Frustration

Ever had the feeling of hitting a lift one week for reps and then not even being able to do one the next? The frustration of a setback, an injury or a stressful life event are all things you could use to your advantage.

Such constraints or obstacles are normally perceived as having a negative impact on the potential to achieve something, as they inhibit or restrict our desire to reach a particular goal (Godbey, 1985). They can be debilitating, leading some individuals to avoid the activity altogether (Ellis, 1994). Sport is naturally characterised by striving for high performance and performance improvement, so it’s not so surprising that regardless of what kind of training you do or sport you play, setbacks and constraints are an inevitable consequence. Achieving peak performance is therefore not only a physical pursuit but also involves beliefs about what is required. It is common for people to think that performance improvements are key to reaching a specific level or goal, and so the absence of these can lead one to believe peak performance is not obtainable. Different athletes will have varying levels of coping skills dependent upon their level of professional experience and also the support they receive from coaches and significant others. Examples of such coping skills include sleep patterns, nutrition strategies, fitness levels, time management and perceived social support (Raedeke & Smith, 2004). 

Stressor or Opportunity?

Stress occurs in training when we feel incompetent or overwhelmed. In sport, this can be a regular scenario for both the recreational and high performing athlete. In terms of physiological preparation, there will often be cases in which we have to push our limits to achieve a specific goal. This may mean we have to do something we have not done before. Optimal performance also requires that we can cope with stressful situations without facing any of the detrimental effects that stress can cause. The same can be said for frustration in response to encountering perceived obstacle, which can lead to a negative response if we ruminate over it, or feel powerless to overcome the thing that we are frustrated about. But setbacks are just that: the perception that a situation is impeding progress.

Since we can take control over our perception of a situation, frustration and setbacks can also prove to be an opportunity to develop, grow and be more resilient in the face of future stressors. Effective coping has been shown to support positive performance outcomes (Nicholls, 2010). Conversely, without effective coping strategies, athletes are inclined to experience less than optimal performance, poor social functioning, distress, low mood and dropout from sport (Nicholls, 2010). Therefore, understanding how some athletes cope and how others do not can help us to understand ways of turning adversity into opportunity.

Reframing the Situation

Something that is fairly new to the sport domain is the application of mindfulness and self-compassion. These coping methods focus on two things: awareness and acceptance. Awareness includes drawing conscious attention to emotions and cognitions, and accepting these as they are, as opposed to letting them control you or trying to change them. The situation may be outside of your control but your response can prove to be an extremely powerful tool in mitigating the potential for that situation to develop into a stressor or a perceived barrier. Employing self-compassion further supports the acceptance of a situation by reducing the likelihood of negative self-criticism. The use of mindfulness has been shown to have a positive association to sport performance (e.g. Kee & Wang, 2008). This involves both an educational component and a practice component. Athletes are first introduced to the concept of mindfulness and how this is applicable to sport, and then given sport specific exercises, including meditation recordings, to allow them to develop a mindfulness practice for use during sport participation. This approach has been coined as Mindfuness Sport Performance Enhancement (Kaufman & Glass, 2009). Self-compassion goes hand in hand with mindfulness by promoting acceptance of both positive and negative emotions, experiences, situations, etc. This goes beyond achieving peak performance and feelings of self-esteem to produce adaptive outcomes. Employing such protocols with athletes can be protective against rumination and perfectionism, allowing for sources of frustration to be seen in a positive light and promoting more adaptive behaviour towards negative experiences. Let’s take a look at some examples of situations where this may be useful in sport and how we might be able to deal with them. 

Poor Performance: Performing below what are deemed acceptable standards (either self-constructed or as external regulations) can prove difficult to accept, especially if that level of performance has previously been attained. Maybe in training you didn’t hit certain weight on your deadlift and then when you go to meet you miss an opener.

Readjust the focus to concentrate on future performances as opposed to dwelling on the past helps to focus on task related goals and mastery of skills. This shifts the emphasis from what you did wrong to what you can change and work on next time. You can also try implementing a time limit on being annoyed at the poor performance. Give yourself 10 minutes to get angry and then you move on. 

Performance Plateau: You know you’re putting the time in, you know you’re sticking to the plan, but you’re not seeing any improvements. 

Realign your plans or your goals, consider alternatives, reevaluate the basics and if none of that works it might be good to take some time off. Cognitive fatigue is just as real as physical fatigue. Being kind to yourself in this situation might be just what you need. More specifically, you can use mindfulness to just accept that what you’re doing is no longer serving you and it’s time to take a different approach. One athlete I worked with had been working on increasing their vertical jump for some time, but felt they had reached a limit and no longer looked forward to hitting his goal. In this case we shifted away from a sole focus on vertical jump and agreed to work on improving other explosive movements. We assessed improvements with these and then in time returned to re-test his vertical jump, all the while ensuring we acknowledged successes along the way. The mental break away helped him to regain excitement for chasing that vert jump improvement and he managed to add height without training this directly.

Injuries happen, when we push our bodies to their limits we risk injury. High level sport can be particularly demanding on the body but so can things such as heavy lifting or high intensity training in recreational athletes.

Accept that recovery is a non-negotiable first off, and understand that activity that aggravates your injury will only hinder your progress. Use the time off to focus on things that you can do. You can still have goals, seek to learn from the experience and acknowledge progress as you move through injury rehabilitation. Awareness of rehabilitation achievements and milestones can help to enhance resilience by understanding what your personal coping strengths are, and therefore allow you to employ them when facing future adversity. Injury may help you identify weaknesses or imbalances that you did not know existed. It also will often free up time from physical training to work on other pursuits. This may be related to your sport or involve other life goals you may have. For example, you might use your experience to learn about movement mechanics or choose to help others who have experienced similar injuries.

These kinds of setbacks and sources of frustration might initiate a stress response, but they don’t have to be experienced entirely negatively. Developing effective coping strategies in the face of adversity by changing perception requires changing cognitive pathways. Then, when faced with a similar situation, the less likely it will seem an insurmountable obstacle. Instead, you might be able to utilise the situation to your advantage and exceed you perceived potential. 

Ellis, A. (1994). The sport of avoiding sports and exercise: A rational emotive behavior therapy perspective. The Sport Psychologist, 8(3), 248-261.

Godbey, G. (1985). Non-use of public leisure services: A model. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 3(2).

Kaufman, K. A., Glass, C. R., & Arnkoff, D. B. (2009). Evaluation of Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE): A new approach to promote flow in athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 3(4), 334-356.

Kee,Y.H.,&Wang,C.K.J.(2008).Relationships between mindfulness, flow dispositions and mental skills adoption: A cluster analytic approach.Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 393–411

Nicholls, A.E., 2010. Effective versus ineffective coping in sport. In: A.R.Nicholls, ed. Coping in sport: theory, methods, and related constructs. New York, NY: Nova Science, 263–276.

Raedeke, T. D., & Smith, A. L. (2004). Coping resources and athlete burnout: An examination of stress mediated and moderation hypotheses. Journal of sport and exercise psychology, 26(4), 525-541.


Why frustration should be your best friend 

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