Return of the king: the psychology of the comeback

Golfer against the sunset

In 2019, Tiger Woods astonished fans and critics alike by winning his fifth Masters, 11 years after his last major trophy. His return to the top followed a decade in the rough, during which time he was plagued by injuries as well as damaging revelations about his personal life.

Rising back to the top of your game years after previously being up there is no mean feat, so what is it that allows someone to stage such an impressive comeback? And what is the difference between those who burst back into the limelight and those who never again recreate their early success? This blog will explore the psychology of the comeback and consider how the lessons of sport also apply to business.

Peaks and troughs

When an athlete is at the top of their game they can seem unstoppable, achieving extraordinary triumphs and flattening the competition. Experience of success can lead to further success through growing confidence and finesse, creating a cycle of high performance. But when this cycle falters, be it due to injury, personal circumstance or performance, a few failures can cause the athlete to enter a downward spiral. Months, even years, in the wilderness can follow. Once world number one, Tiger Woods fell to 668th in the World Golf Rankings in 2017.

The same can happen to individuals in business. Whether you’re returning to work after an absence or starting a new job in the shadow of an acrimonious departure from the previous one, the likelihood is that your confidence will be low. Without this confidence, it will be much harder to make a success of your re-entry to the workplace. You need a strategy for returning to the top of your game.

Fast fall, slow climb

Becoming great takes work. Returning to greatness, with the added mental hurdle of knowing you’re worse than you once were, takes even more. Tiger Woods’ story of physical injuries (he has had four operations on his back) and psychological struggles demonstrates the wide variety of challenges that people can face. By taking lessons from sports psychology, we’ve selected three key steps to overcoming these challenges and staging a comeback.

Building resilience

Resilience is about our ability to thrive in the face of adversity and pressure. To develop your personal resilience, you need to see failures as opportunities to learn more about yourself and the way you operate. Even if you’re returning to work after a positive experience like maternity leave, you’ll be entering into a world very different from the one you’re leaving, and you need to be prepared to adapt to new and unexpected challenges.

For athletes, recognising that things won’t always go your way is the key to performing at your best even after a loss. In business, it is equally important not to agonise over challenges but to embrace them. This will hasten the return of your confidence and the achievement of your goals.

Cementing self-belief

Self-belief is key to avoiding being overwhelmed by negativity when difficulties appear. To even aim for a comeback takes a certain amount of self-belief, and the more confident you are in your ability to return to the top, the faster and steadier your progress will be.

What have you learnt from your time out? How can that become the foundation of even greater success? By marrying self-reflection with dogged commitment and an embrace of challenge you can put yourself in the best possible headspace to bounce back.

Setting goals

In order to get yourself back in the game, you need to recognise the steps that will be involved in getting there. There are four types of goals that you should set:

  • Vision goal – This is your answer to the question: “Why do I want to do this?” It should be a powerful driver for you when times get tough, giving you that ability to push through adversity.
  • Outcome goal – What is the ultimate end that you want to achieve? Keeping this goal clear in your mind can help you avoid getting bogged down in minor setbacks and challenges.
  • Performance goals – These are the measurable steps on your path to a comeback. Comparing yourself to these goals along the journey should give you the hard data to prove you’re making progress.
  • Process goals – The specific, day-to-day actions that will empower you to achieve your performance goals. Process goals break down the overall target into a series of manageable steps.

You can find more advice on goal setting in this blog series.

Making a comeback is not easy, but that is exactly why we are so impressed by them. If Tiger Woods had won the Masters after one operation it would have been an achievement, but to do so after a decade of serious injuries and personal struggles is astonishing. Reaching the top of your game after a period off requires dedication, resilience and passion, but it is possible. We should never resign ourselves to anything less than our best.

“You never give up. That’s a given. You always fight. Just giving up’s never in the equation.” – Tiger Woods