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Why Trying To Be *The* Best Is A Recipe For Unhappiness, From A Neuroscientist Psychiatrist

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August 5, 2021

As the Summer Olympics draw to a close, a few hundred lucky athletes will head home with a medal. The vast majority, however, will leave empty-handed—their hopes and dreams for winning Olympic gold crushed.

I have to admit I have a love-hate relationship with the Olympics, and with all sports for that matter. I can admire the stunning feats of athleticism and the effort, commitment, and focus it takes to push oneself to achieve the seemingly impossible. But I have worked with enough anxious, stressed, depressed, confused, and suicidal Olympians and professional athletes to know that the sacrifices they make are sometimes greater than the rewards.

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We can thank tennis player Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles for shining a spotlight on the mental health issues that elite athletes face. But these brave women already have the hardware—Grand Slam trophies for Osaka and gold medals for Biles. So many others put in just as much dedication and face the same emotional issues but never reach that pinnacle of greatness. 

When a dream dries up in mere seconds, as so many do in the Olympics, it can open a chasm of agony. Devastating defeats can leave athletes at every level feeling worthless, inadequate, and like they've wasted years of their lives. 

As I say to my athlete patients, training to be the best by beating others is a recipe for unhappiness. Training to be your best (especially by helping others be their best), however, is a recipe for happiness. 

How can you cope with similar defeat, even as a recreational athlete? Here are five proven strategies to add to your playbook:

1. Turn bad days into good data.

All athletes have bad days when things aren't clicking the way they should. When those dismal days happen at the biggest events, it can be devastating. Anger, frustration, sadness, and a sense of grief can descend on your psyche. Rather than kick yourself when you're down, try to review what happened analytically. As I tell my patients, "Be curious, not furious." Ask yourself what went wrong. Was it your technique, the breakfast you ate, a bad night's sleep, or something else? Try to learn from every failure. Take it from Olympic runner Lolo Jones, who once said, "A failure isn't a failure if it prepares you for success tomorrow."

2. Train your brain, not just your body.

Anyone who competes in sports must learn to deal with failure. After a loss, thoughts about the shot you missed, the serve that went out of bounds, or the fall you took can swirl on an endless loop in your mind. You may start thinking, "You're a loser," "You blew it," or "You're not good enough." To overcome this hurtful pattern, practice mental fitness.

As an athlete, it's just as important to train your brain as it is to train your body. Learning that you don't have to believe every stupid thought you have is the first step. Challenging your automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) by talking back to them is another key to winning the race for control of your mind.

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3. Be forgiving (to yourself).

Would you ever belittle a teammate or friend who came up short on the playing field? Of course not. You would probably be supportive. So why do so many of us beat ourselves up after a subpar performance? Learning to forgive yourself for your failings can help you cope with defeat. And treating yourself with loving kindness puts you in a better frame of mind to get back out there and try again. 

4. Embrace your emotions.

If you're like many athletes, you may think you have to simply "tough it out" when you lose. This translates to stuffing down emotions like anger, frustration, and sadness that bubble up after a loss. But ignoring your feelings is counterproductive. It can have a negative impact on your overall mental well-being and can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as lashing out at others, self-medicating with comfort foods or alcohol, or withdrawing socially. By acknowledging emotions, you can begin to process them in a healthy way. Talking to a trusted teammate or coach, writing in a journal, or discussing your feelings with a mental health professional can help you process emotions.

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5. Look for the bright spots.

Most athletes believe there's nothing good about losing. And our brains are hardwired for negativity—it's a built-in survival mechanism—so we naturally focus on what's wrong. But even within defeat, there are usually several positives. As you evaluate your losing performance, push yourself to identify at least three things you did right. Maybe you hit more 3-pointers in basketball than your average, maybe in tennis you had a lower percentage of double faults, or maybe in track and field you had a strong start off the blocks. Focusing on what you did right helps reinforce those behaviors and ultimately reframes the experience as a positive one. 

Remember, trying to be better than everyone else is a losing battle. But consistently working to be your best healthy self, mentally and physically, will reap true rewards—beyond any medal.

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Daniel Amen, M.D.
Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist

Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.