Why post-event letdown happens and what you can do about that funk
You set a major goal, put in the training, and made the sacrifices for that sweet “I did it!” feeling of accomplishing your special feat. Congratulations. It was amazing. For a while. Now you feel empty. Emotionally depleted. Maybe listless, sad, and just kind of rudderless. This post-achievement letdown isn’t rare, coaches and sports psychology experts say.
“These big events are like the hub in a wheel and your life orients around it,” says Shilagh Mirgain, health and sport psychologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “When you remove it, there’s a hole.”
Knowing why this letdown happens can help you manage and possibly even avoid getting there in the first place. Here are the most common reasons why you might be feeling down after accomplishing something that you thought was so worthwhile:
You thought your goal would make you happier than it does. Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive psychology expert and author of the book “Happier, No Matter What” calls this the “arrival fallacy”—thinking that when you arrive at a certain success, you’ll be happy. Yet when the glow fades, your same challenges and problems will likely still be there, and your single focus has prevented you from seeing and dealing with them while you’re chasing your big goal.
All those external “you’re doing great” cues have evaporated. The way to any goal is peppered with great training sessions to note in your journal, “go get its” from your teammates, and challenges you get to plan for and put a check mark next to. “When you are focused on training, you have the immediate reward of ‘I had a good workout,’” Mirgain says. And then on race day, there are the cheers, support, texts, and social media and fitness tracker lovefests.
When that flurry stops after a race, the vacuum can leave you feeling empty, even purposeless. “One of the things that can exacerbate post-event letdown is isolation,” Mirgain says. “So it’s really important to stay connected with people.”
Plan get-togethers with your teammates that don’t involve hard efforts and keep talking to your coaches. Robin Smith, a Novaquatics Masters coach, recommends not just debriefing with them right after your event but again after a couple of weeks or a month. “You usually have new insights and different perceptions later,” she says. And it keeps you plugged into the experience and to the competitive swimming part of yourself.
Other things that make you happy are hard to track. It’s easy to log workouts and get excited about what you put in. But it’s harder to track what gives you satisfaction in the rest of life. “Had coffee with my cousin” just doesn’t have the same feelings associated with it in a journal as listing your breakthrough splits.
And sometimes the less measurable things get less attention, and then they feel less important. They’re not, which is part of the reason Mirgain has her athletes keep a different sort of journal, long before the event is over. “They focus on and write down three good things in a workout, even if they didn’t feel it went well,” she says. “So that might include that they made a big effort or that they gave encouragement to a teammate.”
Doing this helps you track how you’re staying positive and supporting yourself. Try the same thing after your race or season. Write a daily list of three things that went well in the rest of your life to give yourself that same sense of accomplishment, plus a reminder of who you are outside of swimming. “If we live for the race, we’re missing other opportunities in our lives,” Mirgain says. She also encourages people to notice and savor—even for 15 seconds—small bright spots in a day, such as the first sip of coffee or a snuggle with a pet. “Those are the simple moments that define a life,” she says. “The race is the icing on the cake.”
You don’t have another goal—inside or outside of swimming. Signing up for another event is a valid way to prevent the postrace void. Just make sure you’re not “chasing the euphoria,” as Mirgain puts it, at the cost of your body.
“The human body does need rest from physical activity to heal injuries and prevent the small things from becoming bigger issues later,” Smith says. “Schedule three to four non-consecutive days a week for active recovery, such as easy swimming, walking, or cycling or yoga, Pilates, or stretching. Putting this on the calendar helps with the feeling of ‘What do I do now?’ We want to reduce stress, not increase it.”
Also consider setting some other goals as well. Maybe the post-race period is the time to do community service or become fluent in another language.
“These allow us to broaden our identity so that more things define us than being a swimmer,” Margin says. “There’s such value to that. It not only helps us keep things in perspective, it helps us strengthen our career as an athlete because we’re bringing more to the sport.”
If post-race letdown starts to really interfere with your quality of life and you’re feeling down and depressed most of the day nearly every day for at least two weeks, or you have loss of interest or pleasure in things you usually enjoy, check in with a mental health professional and get screened for depression or other illnesses that could be dampening your well-being.
- Health and Nutrition