Handling Setbacks

Setbacks happen. They come in different shapes and sizes and can mean the difference in your athlete’s season. A crash on the bike can sideline your athlete for a year. The kids can bring the flu home and your athlete’s out for a week or two.

Above all, your job as coach is to not only see beyond the storm but also to navigate the ship through it.

Stay Calm

I once heard a story about Nelson Mandela. He was on a plane being interviewed by a journalist. The plane began to experience trouble and started to fall out of the sky. As they fell to their impending death, the journalist noticed Mandela sitting calmly sipping his tea.

Eventually the pilots regained control and stabilized the plane. The journalist then asked Mandela how was he able to stay so calm even though they were sure they were going to crash. Mandela said, “I had to, because you needed to stay calm”.

The job of a coach isn’t to predict the future or tell your athlete’s everything is going to be ok when they experience a setback. The coach needs to be the steadfast lighthouse that points their athlete in the right direction. The athlete doesn’t need to know anymore than they have to and your reactions to everything will be scrutinized by them. Keep it together.

Plan Ahead

It’s impossible to predict what setbacks an athlete will experience. Just like you can’t predict your car’s engine needing maintenance, you still (should) have some sort of emergency savings and a plan of action when it happens. The worst case scenario is you don’t need to worry about anything.

You can only do so much to prevent illness and injury. If something like an injury occurs, work with your athlete to determine if it’s something that a change in technique can fix or just some good ole fashion rest. If it’s health, scale back workouts, cancel workouts and evaluate nutrition. Be flexible. Setbacks are going to happen, how you react as coach matters.

Keep Moving Forward – Stay Flexible

I’m currently injured. I sprained my shoulder snowboarding. It’s improving and I won’t be racing in a couple of weeks. Swimming is out of the question for the next week. I rode a beach cruiser and I found out I still can’t put much weight on my right shoulder. I went for a jog yesterday and I couldn’t find a stride that was comfortable for my shoulder. All this to say that it’s important to test what your athlete can do. Try adjusting positions to make it comfortable. If like me, there’s not much you can do, take a walk and keep moving forward.

This week I will go to the gym and see if I can do spin class. I’ll try and jump on the treadmill and test my shoulder and see if I can get back to running. My goal is to stay motivated and not let setbacks like a shoulder injury hinder my goal.

If the injury or illness looks to be a little more indefinite, maybe look further ahead and see what goals can be set for next season. Never give up.


One of the things my wife is really good at is reassuring me everything is going to be ok. I tend to feel like all is lost until she reminds me that my injury is healing, it’s only been a week and the month is February. When your athlete has had experienced some setbacks, he/she is not thinking clearly. They are in the moment and all they can think about is how terrible they feel and that the reality is it will be over soon. Drop little reminders and give your athlete hope.

It’s really pretty simple.

Be prepared for setbacks. They’re going to happen. When they do, stay calm. Follow your plan staying flexible and always reassure your athlete that everything is going to be ok.


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