Competing When All Hope Is Lost


Competing is easy when you’re in the mix. When your goal is within reach, when you have a shot at winning, finding that extra ounce of energy, that burst of motivation, comes naturally. It’s not hard to be a ‘tough’ competitor when you have a shot. You’re fully engaged in the task, ready to take on the next obstacle.

The difficulty arises when you don’t have a shot. When the outlook is gloomy; when the win is out of reach; when your team is losing by a nearly insurmountable lead. Attention drifts, your excitement is replaced by worry and despair, your inner voice shifts from reinforcing effort to ruminating about losing.


If you’ve participated in any sport, you’re familiar with this phenomenon: You fall behind in the race or game; you try to pep-talk your way out of it, but at some point, you go from competing to win to merely surviving and getting through. But it doesn’t just occur in athletics. It occurs in any aspect of life in which we’re pursuing a goal. Teachers watch student’s motivation fade away when they realize that their dream of passing slips away. They transform from engaged to checked out. The business executive sees it in her team as the once profitable company seems headed towards bankruptcy. The company’s workers shift from being thorough to going through the motions.


It’s really hard to compete when we think we have no chance. The feeling of hopelessness is a powerful one, gnawing at us to give up. Ultimately, it’s a conservation of energy mechanism. If there’s no hope, what’s the point in expending any effort? Better to save the mental and physical energy for something that matters. 

So how do you compete when it seems all hope is lost? What do we do about our tendency to give up?

1. Set appropriate expectations and have back up goals.

One of the significant barriers is an unintentional one: when we set one big ambitious goal without any secondary option. It’s the runner who wants to run a personal best, and then once they find themselves falling off that pace, they crater, slowing down dramatically, even though they could have held on to a respectable finish. When we see our big goal drifting away from us, it’s easy to move from motivated to freak-out to apathy. A secondary goal that is achievable allows us to slow that cascade, refocusing us on the task at hand.

2. Train Hopefulness

When faced with a situation that seems insurmountable, we can either respond with hopelessness or hopefulness. What decides which direction we go? Our perception of control. Can we grasp on to some semblance of control that we can have an impact on the outcome? Or does it seem inevitable that we’re headed towards defeat? Maintaining a sense of control goes a long way to keeping us hopeful.

3. Bite-Size Pieces

When things start going poorly, we often zoom out. We start to see how much work we have to do and all of the different items that are going wrong. It feels overwhelming. Instead, zoom in. Focus on the next step, what’s right in front of you, what you can do right now. You might not be able to completely turn around a doomed project, but if you can focus on doing the best you can on this one small aspect, then small steps eventually become big gains. In the running world, I call it just make it to the next turn. Break your race down into manageable bite-size chunks. That way, you don’t get overwhelmed by thinking how many more miles you have to go. Anyone can make it to the next turn.

As I watched this month’s Super Bowl, I couldn’t help but admire Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes. In the waning minutes of the game, with his team down double digits with little hope of coming back, Mahomes was out there giving it his all, scrambling away from defenders, taking big hits, and making insane throws. Competing when all hope is lost is a skill. It can be trained and developed.


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