Overcoming Setbacks

Overcoming Setbacks

Setbacks are inevitable but can often feel catastrophic. “Achievement Goal Theory” can explain how you manage these setbacks by “Mastery” vs. “Ego” orientations.

An ego-oriented individual compares their performance to others and always focuses on winning. Can you think of someone like this? Or have you had moments where you have this mindset? Maybe it’s when you’ve done well on a PT test, but others have done better. Rather than feeling good about your performance or taking others’ better performances as motivation to do better, you’ve gotten excessively hung up on not being as good. This can lead to an unproductive cycle.

For these ego-oriented individuals, recognition and status are important to them, and they only feel successful when they are more successful than others. Because of this, setbacks impact self-worth, which may result in giving up over time.

A mastery-oriented individual concentrates on task and skill achievement, exerts maximum effort, knows that perfection is unrealistic, and even anticipates setbacks. They compare themselves with themselves. Setbacks are seen as opportunities for improvement and learning, and they feel success and satisfaction when they see their skill improvement, know they are giving their all, and they have learned something new.  Here are ways to shift towards a mastery-orientation:

1) Make process goals rather than just outcome goals. An outcome goal focuses primarily on the end goal. Consider if you want to improve your 2-mile time. Your end goal would be going from 15:00 to 13:30. It is important to consider where you are trying to go. But once you’ve established that end goal, it’s productive to shift your focus to how you’ll get there. You could say something like, I’m going to run twice a week on my own. One of those runs will be a longer, slower run, and the other will be a faster-paced track workout. By creating a process goal, you focus on the procedure that will often lead to an individual’s outcome goal. If you don’t reach your goal, you can still feel good about the progress you made. And this isn’t nonsense. Even if you didn’t get down to the 13:30 time, adding two high-quality workouts per week will undoubtedly increase your running fitness. Here, you can see how this slight tweak in thinking can make your efforts more productive.

2) Observe your self-talk. An ego-oriented individual might say, “I can’t do that. I tried before and failed.” This generates emotions such as doubt, nervousness, shame, etc. In a way, this causes a new setback because it places a block that could be hard to overcome. We often hear this from individuals who have tried out for Ranger School through their Battalion’s selection process. They’ve grown discouraged because of past failures, which feels even worse if you’ve seen others you know to succeed.

A mastery-oriented individual might say, “I had a setback, but with practice, I can do better.” This language acknowledges the reality of the situation but sounds hopeful and maybe even excited to do better the next time. Here, you can use the first point we mentioned about establishing a process to improve where you failed.

3) Reflect and increase your awareness. The ultimate goal of setbacks should be learning from them. They suck, but how can you make them useful? What elements of this setback were in and out of my control? By focusing on the elements you can control, you move forward in a practical direction. What did I learn from this setback? You have probably heard this before, but there is always something to be gained from these tough situations. After some time, you may even ask yourself how do you now view the setback? You might find that you don’t view it as a setback anymore.

In the previous example, maybe you failed part of the Battalion’s Ranger School selection process because of a PT test failure. You cannot control the attitude of your grader. Perhaps they weren’t fair, and that’s okay. But you can control the quality of your push-ups and put yourself in a better position next time to execute. Focusing on the grader and how they hurt you won’t lead to any progress. It just becomes an excuse, even if there is some legitimacy. 

4) Know your why. When we experience setbacks, our purpose for reaching that goal in the first place may become clouded by doubt. However, a sound purpose can keep you motivated even if you have doubts. When discussing ego versus mastery orientations, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are worth noting. Extrinsic motivation comes from external reasons, typically wanting a reward or avoiding a punishment. Intrinsic motivation comes from internal reasons such as enjoyment and satisfaction. The more intrinsically motivated you are, the longer your motivation will last. Don’t be afraid to take some personal time to consider why you’re even pursuing the goal. What is the point of all your efforts?

We can’t always control the situation, but we can control our responses to it.



This material is written by Dr. Neva Barno, the Blue / Green Mental Performance Coach and a subject matter expert in helping military athletes get more from themselves. Her perspective is that although our thoughts and processes are often ignored, they can play a significant role in producing desirable outcomes. 

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