Dealing with setbacks

By Christopher Cudworth

Chris Cudworth 8When you set goals in your running or riding there are bound to be disappointments along the way. If the disappointment is profound enough, you go so far as to call it a setback. That is, you might need to adjust your expectations. Recalibrate your goals. Adjust your training or racing schedule. Heal from injury. Make do with what you’ve got. Or even start over.

If you are new to racing and competition, setbacks can feel like the end of the world. What happened to that happy state where everything was going great?

The musical world has a word, even a genre, to describe the next phase of emotions. It’s called the Blues. The Blues are all about dealing with setbacks. When you get whupped by something or other in this world, you just gotta deal with it.

Some of us regress for a time, moping in our misery. Others try to push on through knowing in the back of our minds that things could get worse before they get better.

So let’s take a look at what constitutes a setback, and how to deal with it.

Great quotes about setbacks

See, setbacks are not the product of some “new psychology” or pattycake self esteem program. Consider this quote by none other than Henry Ford. Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.”

Or, here’s a quote from Olympic Gold Medalist Peggy Fleming: “I think exercise tests us in so many ways, our skills, our hearts, our ability to bounce back after setbacks. This is the inner beauty of sports and competition, and it can serve us all well as adult athletes.”

Setbacks as motivation

When you consider the life stories of most professional athletes and leaders in business, it isn’t the triumphs with which we most readily identify. It is the failures that  are necessary to achieve that level of expertise that most interest us.

So rather than look at your current setback as a sign of weak character, you should view yourself in terms of challenge and opportunity. That is, when you set before yourself a challenge that is hard to achieve, it is the difficulty that makes it worthy trying.

For some people, much of the trouble in life actually comes about when things are not challenging enough. Young people with idle time on their hands get involved in risky behavior because day to day life is simply boring. Many of us crave excitement and we thrive on risk. Kids sit playing video games because the visual and mental stimulation of killing things, even in a virtual environment, is preferable to sitting around doing nothing.

Of course we sometimes imagine our threats as challenges much greater than they really are. Or ever existed.

Of course we sometimes imagine our threats as challenges much greater than they really are. Or ever existed.

If you think about it, all of life is a rite of passage. Ancient cultures recognized this transition into adulthood (so aptly characterized in the quote above by Peggy Fleming) as an important engagement in the life of a person. Some rites of passage, such as participating in a dangerous hunt or the first war with another tribe, could indeed be deadly if you did not pay particular attention to your role and function in the action. That is why the rite of passage was so highly ritualized.

We continue imitating those true rites of passage with social behaviors designed to scare people into awareness. Fraternity or sorority rites, military and athletic pledging or hazing all function to some degree as a tool for cultural indoctrination.

Stress and setbacks

They also prepare us for setbacks. Rehearsing high-stress activities is a test that reveals character. If you are put through the wringer and can’t deal with setbacks in the process, you might not be accepted in the group as a whole. That’s an evolutionary principle in action. The idea of “fitness” in nature is based on your ability to persevere and perform a logical, functional role of support or leadership in a group, culture or population.

It’s true in the business world as well. Every day in the office is a test of “fitness” per se, and your ability to deal with setbacks in the corporate or business world is a sign of your overall character and value to the team.

So the parallel worlds of sport and business draw on each other for success. We hear many tales of how hard it is to succeed in business. It’s why we admire the Steve Jobs of the world, who was fired from the very company he helped create. Yet he returned to lead Apple to world ascendency. There were many setbacks along the way. We all purchased a few, and avoided others. Now that he’s gone some wonder if Apple can continue to thrive without Steve Jobs at the helm. So far…

So as you enter your own world of achievement, and set yourself up to succeed only to fall short due to injury, lack of ability to tolerate intense training, or from random setbacks like an accident, distracting demands on your time or the simple realization that the goals you set are for now outrageous, it helps to draw back and consider what we can really learn from a setback.

Here are some simple rules to abide by in dealing with setbacks:

1. A setback does not define you. 

Gain some objectivity. Your whole being is not determined by a single setback or missing a goal. What does define you is how you come back from temporary failure, or make decisions based on new objectives.

2. A setback is not the end of you. 

When soccer player David Beckham screwed up and got a red card in the World Cup, he was hated by his entire country for the failure. Yet he came back to become a leading player in future World Cup competition and one of the world’s most famous soccer players because that initial setback did not end his aspirations.

3. Within a setback lurks opportunity. 

If you’ve been hurt in training, often the recovery holds clues to how to become a better athlete or businessperson. Learning your weaknesses is a great tool for future achievement. Many time you can turn them into your greatest strengths through training, focus and perseverance.

4. Setbacks should not kill your spirit. 

Our spiritual examples in the world help us understand the true nature of being. The Christian story of Jesus Christ triumphing over political and worldly powers through matters of spirit inspires billions of people. But Christianity is not alone in providing spiritual inspiration and healing. Great wisdom can do the same thing.

Zen Buddhism offers us this: “To cry and not be carried away by tears, to laugh and not be carried away by laughter, is the way.” 

So whatever your goals are, be prepared for the eventual reality of a setback. Those moments can come on suddenly or eventually. Either way we need to ready our minds for how to deal with adversity. That’s what helps us put one foot in front of the other whether we’re running down the road, pedaling our bike or reaching through the water on the next difficult stroke. Setbacks are always around the bend, but they don’t need to block you from the road ahead.






About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at, and Online portfolio:
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