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Experiencing and overcoming the pain of rejection in sport

Case study in letters over floorboards
Learning from rejection - sport psychology

What man is strong enough to reject the possibility of hope? The Locked Room (1986) Paul Auster, American writer (1947–)

Rejection is part of sport. Rejection is part of life. The sense of rejection we feel and the way we interpret that rejection influences our recovery following rejection. Depending on the exact experience, the pain of rejection can live long in the memory and at the time of the experience, we might wonder if the pain will ever leave us. We might not make the squad, they might sit us on the bench, we might not get to the Olympics. We might lose the one contract that ever mattered to us.

The research tells us that our fears about our losses are often overblown. We can manage the rejection better than we believe. But it does not mean we do not feel hurt by the process. We experience rejection in romantic relationships and interpersonal relationships. Sometimes romantic relationships end in divorce and many athletes and coaches live with these changes in their lives while they continue with their sport. But how do we cope positively with the experience of rejection? One strategy people use to take the sting out of rejection is to devalue the rejecter and say that he or she did not know me well enough to know how what I could offer or contribute.

From our position here in sport, we need to examine the adaptive ways of recovering from rejection. How we explain what happened influences our recovery and our contribution to our own happiness. The research suggests that we get back to the level of happiness we felt before the experience of rejection. Not everyone recovers from rejection positively. Often, the experience of rejection resonates years and decades after the event. Many athletes speak of their intention to walk away on their own terms from their sport, but this is often a luxury that passes most athletes by. So how can we recover best? And how can we adapt to a life that changed without our permission?

Howe and Dweck argued that the difference between those scarred by the experience and those that recover steadily is the power given to rejections to define whom they are as a person. Imagine a coach or manager rejects you. You still have the choice about how you interpret and experience that rejection. You hand the power over to the coach and lay helpless, or you can hold on to the power and steer yourself on a positive and uplifting course of action. What Howe and Dweck argued is that those who see rejection as the core of who they are will struggle to recover or take much more time to recover. In rational terms, a rejection might be one rejection on one occasion by one person. It is not all people in all situations always rejecting you.

My self-concept – a mental picture of who I am (e.g., I am a superb athlete) ties into the relationships we have in our lives. We are part of a team, a squad, a panel, and people know us because of our contribution to a sport. It's difficult to peel apart the parts of ourselves and the more strongly we identity with our role as sports person, the more difficult the rejection can be; however, the key role here is how we manage the rejection.

 The key message with any rejection is: What can I learn about myself from this experience? Which positive direction shall I travel now? We can reassure ourselves by explaining that event is one event in our lives. Though it is a significant and painful event, it cannot define the totality of who we are. Some blame and rejection of the other is fine; however, we can take responsibly to learn about ourselves and manage our own lives, compassionately.


Howe, L., & Dweck, C. (2016). Changes in self-definition impede recovery from rejection. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(1), 54–71.

What man is strong enough to reject the possibility of hope? The Locked Room (1986) Paul Auster, American writer (1947–). See Owen, James; Times Books. The Times Great Quotations: Famous quotes to inform, motivate and inspire . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition. 

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