The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

Unexplained performance slumps can be extremely frustrating for athletes and can be caused by any number of reasons, physical or mental.  Sport psychologists agree that these declines are just par for the course in competitive sport but that doesn’t make them any less difficult to overcome.

What are the causes?

If you’ve effectively ruled out any kind of physical problem such as over-training, poor sleep, injury, illness, a technical change, etc., the focus turns to the mental aspects of training. Competitive high performance athletes are typically under a lot of scrutiny and pressure from a number of people, coaches, peers, fans, media or sponsors that contribute to the mental stress of training and competition. Fortunately, the psychology behind performance slumps is a commonly explored area and there is a lot of advice on how to overcome the rut you find yourself in.

How do I get out of this?

Relax – If possible, take a break from training and competition. A lot of negative feelings are associated with performance slumps and some time off gives you the chance to turn those feelings around. Separating yourself from your situation also allows you to take a step back and look at your sporting career with some objectivity. This little ‘vacation’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a long time, a week off can be a rejuvenating experience and could be the key to getting back on track.

Set some new goals – Most athletic goals are focused on final outcomes, which of course makes sense but can be a detriment to your success when faced with a steady decline in performance.  Re-evaluating and creating new goals or process goals that focus on everyday training and skill development can redirect your focus, increase self-confidence and improve motivation.

Acknowledge your fears – The mental aspects of a performance slump have a tendency to form a chain reaction with one setback leading you down a slippery slope of doubts and fears. Talk with your coach or a counsellor and get them to help you identify the thoughts that may be holding you back. Some strategies they may explore are:

It’s important to acknowledge that challenging moments happen in all sports and that every athlete will experience significant setbacks at some point in their career. When faced with these moments, remind yourself that you have the capacity to overcome them by starting slowly, achieving smaller, attainable goals, remaining patient and overall, being aware that others are around to support you and will be there to help you push forward.

References from the SIRC Collection:

Ball C. Unexplained Sporting Slumps and Causal Attributions. Journal Of Sport Behavior. September 2013;36(3):233-242.

Cogan K. Moving Past Performance Slumps. Olympic Coach. Summer2014 2014;25(3):12-14.

Grove J, Eklund R, Heard N. Coping with performance slumps : factor analysis of the ways of coping in Sport Scale. Australian Journal Of Science & Medicine In Sport. December 1997;29(4):99-105.

Tamminen K, Holt N, Neely K. Exploring adversity and the potential for growth among elite female athletes. Psychology Of Sport & Exercise. January 2013;14(1):28-36.

Taylor J. Slumpbusting: A Systematic Analysis of Slumps in Sports. Sport Psychologist. March 1988;2(1):39-48.