Summer Olympics 2021: The Pain of Not Making the Team

July 8, 2021

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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By Melissa Riddle Chalos

With the Summer Olympics set to open on July 23, people around the world are entranced by elite athletic performance, and the extra year of waiting for the Toyko Games has only added to the anticipation. 

Athletes in every sport spend most of their lives aspiring to, training for, and sacrificing almost everything to have a shot at making the Olympic team. It’s as fierce and cutthroat as competition gets. But in most sports, not even half of the athletes who get to the trials actually make it to the Olympics. 

In 2015, USA Swimming counted 362,320 swimmers registered with the organization spread out across nearly 3,000 teams. These are not your swim club swimmers. These are the swimmers who compete to reach the Olympic trials. Only 49 swimmers made it to the Olympics in Rio. That’s .0013%.

So, you can imagine the devastation of not being part of the Olympic team when you’ve spent years training and preparing for it. 

Olympic athlete David Boudia knows firsthand the mental health toll that level of competition exacts. In 2008, he made his first Olympic team but fell short of medaling. “The expectations you have at the Olympic Games that don’t get met are shattering,” he says of the “emotional roller coaster” experience. “For so many people it ends in heartbreak.”

At some point in all of our lives, we know what it feels like to fall short of a goal.

The Rest of Us

Most of us will never know what it’s like to fail to achieve at such an elite level. But at some point in all of our lives, we know what it feels like to fall short of a goal. Whether it’s making the volleyball team in middle school, the debate team in high school, or maybe even just a friend or social group that denied us acceptance, life can be full of disappointments. It can be excruciating to stand in that line, waiting for the picker to pick us. Some of us may even know what it feels like to never be chosen, to be the kid nobody wants on their team. 

The sting of rejection — of not being chosen — can be felt for years after it is inflicted. And it can launch a pattern of low self-esteem, anxiety, and lack of confidence that lingers well into adulthood, impacting decisions and behaviors that shape your life, either negatively or for the good. While we can’t control the heartbreak that comes our way, we can control what happens next. 

Summer Olympics 2021: The Rest of Us - Claudia Black Center

“Let It Go” is Just a Lyric

What happens in the wake of a big letdown determines how well you move forward. So, what can you do to learn, grow, and move forward when getting cut from a team or dealt a serious blow?

For starters, you need to feel it. “Giving yourself permission to grieve about disappointment is how you move on,” says Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Upside of Stress. “If you try to suppress your feelings and ‘skip’ the feeling bad part, you’re less likely to learn and grow from the experience.”

Want some other important strategies to help you move forward when you’re on an emotional edge? Here are five:

1. Self-care

Be intentional about your physical health because studies show that when you’re physically strong, you feel stronger emotionally.

2. Stop and Swap

Choose a positive, constructive, self-esteem-building distraction, something you know you excel at, something that reminds you that you have other aspects to who you are, and move forward.

3. Reach for Support

Studies show that people who seek the comfort, safety, and advice of friends recover fastest from setbacks. 

4. Redefine Your Identity

Refuse to see yourself as a victim and reinforce positive self-identity instead. Be intentional with what you say to yourself: I’m going to be OK. I’m strong. I have it within me to get through this and get to where I need to be.

5. Focus On the Universal

Stop the self-blame and give yourself a break. “Everyone makes mistakes,” McGonigal says. “Everyone experiences rejection. Everyone knows what it’s like to try and fail. All that your experience says is that you are human — not that your life is uniquely screwed up.”

Giving yourself permission to grieve about disappointment is how you move on.

Help in Transition

Recovering in the wake of a major setback in life largely depends on your ability to contextualize the experience within the story of your life. Some of us find it possible to step back from the pain and put into practice the mindfulness it takes to be intentional in our thoughts, self-talk, and actions that lead to positive change. Others need a bit of help finding their way to the turning point in the painful experience.

If you struggle with ADHD, anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, experiencing a major disappointment in life can feel overwhelming or paralyzing. You may need a leg up to get you over the emotional hurdle. At Claudia Black Young Adult Center, we come alongside young adults who feel stuck and unable to process the underlying issues that make hardships feel impossible to overcome. We’re here to help you work through the emotions that keep you from reaching for the gold in your life. To learn more about our personalized programs and therapeutic options, reach out today.