We’ve all been there: The stakes are high, and this feels like a make-or-break race for you. You have high expectations and you’re revved up and ready to go. Then the tide turns, and the winds aren’t blowing your way…suddenly everything seems tougher. But there’s a lot to be learned from the times when things seem especially hard –including how to set yourself up for better times ahead.

Are you making “tough” times tougher?

Notice what you say to yourself, and how that contributes to disappointment, frustration, or anger. Inside your head, perhaps you say things, like “I should’ve won that race,” or “I must finish top 10?” But really… should you? Or must you? Of course you would LIKE to. Folks might expect that you will. But ANYONE can win a given race or regatta.

Notice, with words like “should” or “must,” how you feel emotionally, and in your body. Some anxiety and tension?! Clinging to beliefs that you should or must not only feels lousy, but it may set you up for more setbacks. Amped up, you may cling to that tiller a little tighter, steer less fluidly, and go slower. When too amped, you likely get narrowly focused on something in your head (e.g., last race) or on the course (e.g., just one other boat), losing the broad focus that you need to make good decisions and read the course accurately.

Try out different self-talk

Next time you’re swamped in a sea of shoulds and musts, try out the word “like” instead. “I would’ve liked to have won that race,” or “I’d like to finish top 5” is much less pressured. It can allow you to feel calm and be loose, improving your chances of things going well right now, or in the future. You may still feel disappointment, frustration, or anger along the way, but maybe not to the point where your performance drowns in it. You might even channel that emotion into a better performance.

Go ahead, feel it, and let it pass

You will survive difficult emotions; remember those emotions can come and go. No need to fight them. (And parents, there’s no need to “cure” your kid of those emotions either). With best intentions, as coaches, parents, or friends… we’ve all said things like, “Don’t feel frustrated.” Then, frustration boils to new levels. Instead, we can notice the frustration, label it (“That was really frustrating”), and let it pass. Reasons for frustration don’t need to make sense. Maybe you were over early, and you “shouldn’t” have been. Be honest with yourself about how it happened and trust that hard lessons are sinking in; they don’t need to be hammered in.

Putting it all together

Good tacks don’t come instantly; they take practice. Likewise, training good mental skills takes regular practice too. Practice the skills of trying new self-talk and letting emotions come and go. Next time, begin learning the art of focusing on what’s in your control!

Tim Herzog trains sailors and other athletes to consistently be on top of their mental game. Years ago he was a college sailing coach at Kings Point and Boston College, and now is a mental performance coach at Reaching Ahead Counseling and Mental Performance (reachingahead.com).