Journal of Human Sport and Exercise

Overcoming failure in sport: A self-forgiveness framework

Richard Gregory Cowden, Everett L. Worthington



Within the winner or loser dichotomy that exemplifies competitive sport, athletic success hinges on the ability to overcome and respond constructively to failure. This article introduces self-forgiveness as an adaptive, purposeful approach to coping with competitive sport performance failure in a way that stimulates personal growth and combats loss of motivation. In contrast to defensive responses that shield self-integrity, genuine self-forgiveness is reached through a process in which athletes (a) accept personal responsibility for their role in the unsuccessful performance outcome and (b) restore self-regard by affirming the self. Although athletes expose themselves to uncomfortable emotional experiences associated with failure, self-forgiveness is proposed as a process that enables athletes to objectively evaluate unsuccessful performances, identify areas warranting improvement, and develop adaptive psychological recovery responses to failure.


Self-forgiveness; Failure; Sport; Athletes


Association of Tennis Professionals World Tour. (2017). ATP rankings: Singles. Retrieved from

Ball, D. (1976). Failure in sport. American Sociological Review, 41, 726-739.

Bardel, M., Fontayne, P., Colombel, F., & Schiphof, L. (2010). Effects of match result and social comparison on sport state self-esteem fluctuations. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 171-176.

Barnes, C., Carvallo, M., Brown, R., & Osterman, L. (2010). Forgiveness and the need to belong. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1148-1160.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Bell, C. M., Davis, D. E., Griffin, B. J., Ashby, J. S., & Rice, K. G. (2017). The promotion of self-forgiveness, responsibility, and willingness to make reparations through a workbook intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 571-578.

Brady, S. T., Reeves, S. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Cook, J. E., Taborsky-Barba, S., & ... Cohen, G. L. (2016). The psychology of the affirmed learner: Spontaneous self-affirmation in the face of stress. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 353-373.

Carless, D., & Douglas, K. (2012). Stories of success: Cultural narratives and personal stories of elite and professional athletes. Reflective Practice, 13, 387-398.

Connor-Smith, J., & Flachsbart, C. (2007). Relations between personality and coping: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 1080-1107.

Conroy, D., Poczwardowski, A., & Henschen, K. (2001). Evaluative criteria and consequences associated with failure and success for elite athletes and performing artists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13, 300-322.

Cornish, M. A., & Wade, N. G. (2015). Working through past wrongdoing: Examination of a self-forgiveness counseling intervention. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62, 521-528.

Cowden, R. (2017). On the mental toughness of self-aware athletes: Evidence from competitive tennis athletes. South African Journal of Science, 113, 1-6.

Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (2015). Self-affirmations provide a broader perspective on self-threat. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 3-18.

Crocker, J., Niiya, Y., & Mischkowski, D. (2008). Why does writing about important values reduce defensiveness? Self-affirmation and the role of positive other-directed feelings. Psychological Science, 19, 740-747.

Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2004). The costly pursuit of self-esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 392-414.

Davis, D. E., Ho, M. Y., Griffin, B. J., Bell, C., Hook, J. N., Van Tongeren, D. R., & ... Westbrook, C. J. (2015). Forgiving the self and physical and mental health correlates: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62, 329-335.

Emanuel, A. S., Howell, J. L., Taber, J. M., Ferrer, R. A., Klein, W. P., & Harris, P. R. (2018). Spontaneous self-affirmation is associated with psychological well-being: Evidence from a US national adult survey sample. Journal of Health Psychology, 23, 95-102.

Exline, J., & Yadavalli, S. (2011). Reparative behaviors and self-forgiveness: Effects of a laboratory-based exercise. Self and Identity, 10, 101-126.

Ferguson, L. J., Kowalski, K. C., Mack, D. E., & Sabiston, C. M. (2015). Self-compassion and eudaimonic well-being during emotionally difficult times in sport. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16, 1263-1280.

Fletcher, D., & Scott, M. (2010). Psychological stress in sports coaches: A review of concepts, research, and practice. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28, 127-137.

Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

Gottman, J. M. (1993). A theory of marital dissolution and stability. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 57-75.

Griffin, B. G., Worthington Jr., E. L., Lavelock, C. R., Greer, C. L., Yin, L., Davis, D. E., & Hook, J. N. (2015). Efficacy of a self-forgiveness workbook: A randomized controlled trial with interpersonal offenders. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62, 124-136.

Hall, J., & Fincham, F. (2005). Self-forgiveness: The stepchild of forgiveness research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 621-637.

Haney, C., & Long, B. (1995). Coping Effectiveness: A path analysis of self-efficacy, control, coping, and performance in sport competitions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25, 1726-1746.

Hook, J. N., Farrell, J. E., Davis, D. E., Van Tongeren, D. R., Griffin, B. J., Grubbs, J., & ... Bedics, J. D. (2015). Self-forgiveness and hypersexual behavior. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 22, 59-70.

Jacinto, G. A. (2010). The self-forgiveness process of caregivers after the death of care-receivers diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Journal of Social Service Research, 36, 24-36.

Joyce, Y., Smith, R., & Vitaliano, P. (2005). Stress-resilience, illness, and coping: A person-focused investigation of young women athletes. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 28, 257-265.

Krause, N. (2017). Religious involvement and self-forgiveness. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 20, 128-142.

Law, K. C., & Chapman, A. L. (2015). Borderline personality features as a potential moderator of the effect of anger and depressive rumination on shame, self-blame, and self-forgiveness. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 46, 27-34.

Lazarus, R. (2000). How emotions influence performance in competitive sports. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 229-252.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer.

Lyons, G. C., Deane, F. P., Caputi, P., & Kelly, P. J. (2011). Spirituality and the treatment of substance use disorders: An exploration of forgiveness, resentment and purpose in life. Addiction Research and Theory, 19, 459-469.

Martinent, G., Ledos, S., Ferrand, C., Campo, M., & Nicolas, M. (2015). Athletes' regulation of emotions experienced during competition: A naturalistic video-assisted study. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 4, 188-205.

McConnell, J. M., & Dixon, D. N. (2012). Perceived forgiveness from God and self-forgiveness. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 31, 31-39.

Mosewich, A. D., Crocker, P. E., Kowalski, K. C., & DeLongis, A. (2013). Applying self-compassion in sport: An intervention with women athletes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, 514-524.

Neff, K. (2012). The science of self-compassion. In C. K. Germer & R. D. Siegel (Eds.), Wisdom and compassion in psychotherapy: Deepening mindfulness in clinical practice (pp. 79-92). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Nicholls, A., & Polman, R. (2007). Stressors, coping, and coping effectiveness among players from the England under-18 rugby union team. Journal of Sport Behavior, 30, 199-218.

Nicholls, A., Polman, R., & Levy, A. (2012). A path analysis of stress appraisals, emotions, coping, and performance satisfaction among athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 263-270.

Nicholls, A., Polman, R., Levy, A., & Borkoles, E. (2010). The mediating role of coping: A cross-sectional analysis of the relationship between coping self-efficacy and coping effectiveness among athletes. International Journal of Stress Management, 17, 181-192.

Peterson, S. J., Van Tongeren, D. R., Womack, S. D., Hook, J. N., Davis, D. E., & Griffin, B. J. (2017). The benefits of self-forgiveness on mental health: Evidence from correlational and experimental research. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12, 159-168.

Romero, C., Kalidas, M., Elledge, R., Chang, J., Liscum, K. R., & Friedman, L. C. (2006). Self-forgiveness, spirituality, and psychological adjustment in women with breast cancer. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29, 29-36.

Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Ryan, R., Huta, V., & Deci, E. (2008). Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 139-170.

Sagar, S., Busch, K., & Jowett, K. (2010). Success and failure, fear of failure, and coping responses of adolescent academy football players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22, 213-230.

Sagar, S., Lavallee, D., & Spray, C. (2007). Why young elite athletes fear failure: Consequences of failure. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25, 1171-1184.

Sagar, S., Lavallee, D., & Spray, C. (2009). Coping with the effects of fear of failure: A preliminary investigation of young elite athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 3, 73-98.

Sagar, S., & Stoeber, J. (2009). Perfectionism, fear of failure, and affective responses to success and failure: The central role of fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31, 602-627.

Schmeichel, B. J., & Vohs, K. (2009). Self-affirmation and self-control: Affirming core values counteracts ego depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 770-782.

Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2002). Accepting threatening information: Self-affirmation and the reduction of defensive biases. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 119-123.

Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 183-242). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Sherman, D. K., & Hartson, K. A. (2011). Reconciling self-protection with self-improvement: Self-affirmation theory. In M. Alicke & C. Sedikides (Eds.), The handbook of self-enhancement and self-protection (pp. 128-151). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Skinner, E., Edge, K., Altman, J., & Sherwood, H. (2003). Searching for the structure of coping: A review and critique of category systems for classifying ways of coping. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 216-269.

Tamminen, K. A., Poucher, Z. A., & Povilaitis, V. (2017). The car ride home: An interpretive examination of parent–athlete sport conversations. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 6, 325-339.

Toussaint, L., Barry, M., Angus, D., Bornfriend, L., & Markman, M. (2017). Self-forgiveness is associated with reduced psychological distress in cancer patients and unmatched caregivers: Hope and self-blame as mediating mechanisms. Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 35, 544-560.

Wakslak, C. J., & Trope, Y. (2009). Cognitive consequences of affirming the self: The relationship between self-affirmation and object construal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 927-932.

Wenzel, M., Woodyatt, L. & Hedrick, K. (2012). No genuine self-forgiveness without accepting responsibility: Value reaffirmation as a key to maintaining positive self-regard. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 617-627.

Wilson, G., & Kerr, J. (1999). Affective responses to success and failure: A study of winning and losing in competitive rugby. Personality and Individual Differences, 27, 85-99.

Wohl, M., DeShea, L., & Wahkinney, R. (2008). Looking within: Measuring state self-forgiveness and its relationship to psychological well-being. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 40, 1-10.

Woodyatt, L., & Wenzel, M. (2013). The psychological immune response in the face of transgressions: Pseudo self-forgiveness and threat to belonging. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 951-958.

Woodyatt, L., & Wenzel, M. (2014). A needs-based perspective on self-forgiveness: Addressing threat to moral identity as a means of encouraging interpersonal and intrapersonal restoration. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 50, 125-135.

Woodyatt, L., Wenzel, M., & Ferber, M. (2017). Two pathways to self-forgiveness: A hedonic path via self-compassion and a eudaimonic path via the reaffirmation of violated values. British Journal of Social Psychology, 56, 515-536.

Woodyatt, L., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Wenzel, M., & Griffin, B. J. (Eds.). (2017). Handbook of the psychology of self-forgiveness. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature.

Zhong, Y., Chen, Z., Luo, X., Wang, X., & Yi, W. (2014). Effects of self-affirmation on self-esteem and self-evaluation. Chinese Journal of Clinical Psychology, 22, 390-393.


Copyright (c) 2019 Journal of Human Sport and Exercise

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.