When Setbacks Strike


Setbacks are a common and sometimes unavoidable part of the deal as a trader, poker player, golfer, etc., or when working on your mental game. That doesn’t make them fun. Here you are striving to make progress and something blows up in your face. It can be demoralizing, destroy confidence, and create chaos. 

Some of you react to setbacks by trying to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. You tell yourself, “Today is a new day” and you quickly move forward, attempting to forget what just happened and prove that it won’t happen again. Or you have a stubborn, never say die attitude, that you rely on in these moments. This keeps you positive and motivated, but it may prevent you from being inquisitive about what is causing these bigger setbacks, making them more likely to reoccur.

Of course, sometimes setbacks are hard to avoid. Maybe you’ve been working with a poker, golf or trading coach and you’ve learned a ton of new skills on both the technical and mental side. But then you get sick or go on vacation, and when you get back it seems like those skills are gone and you have to start over.

Or maybe you’re a victim of variance, an unavoidable reality in poker and trading. Variance could impact your short-term results and the financial setback doesn’t reflect the progress you’ve actually made. Instead of being rewarded, you feel punished. While you know variance is part of the game, you’re struggling to maintain a level head. You know you shouldn’t be overly results-oriented, but can’t help yourself, especially with all the work you’ve been putting in lately.

Everyone will go through setbacks of one kind of another. So in some ways the question isn’t, will they happen, but how will you respond when they do? How quickly can you recover in the short-term and carry lessons forward for the long-term, so future setbacks are less severe?

For some of you dealing with setbacks is as hard as it gets mentally and emotionally, especially when it feels like you’re not making any actual progress.  


How Could This Happen?

Imagine walking in a dark room where there are literally holes in the floor. Setbacks happen when you fall through one of those holes. If you can’t see the technical, mental, or emotional holes, then you’re going to eventually fall into them, and likely repeatedly. 

This is what happens to a lot of my clients before we start working together. They’re blind to the factors and forces that influence their mental and emotional state, and thus they fall again and again – not understanding why or how to stop it.

Coaching, or the work you do to gain awareness/recognition of your pattern (through data collection, profiling and mapping), metaphorically turns on the lights so you can see the holes in the floor. 

But that doesn’t mean you’ll avoid falling into them. There will still be times when getting tilted or overconfident is blinding, or a lack of energy or focus, for example, leads to a setback. You can see, and in general see better, but you don’t have full command of those problems so you’ll continue to fall.

This phase is often the hardest to deal with because not only are you upset that you’ve had a setback or poor results, but you feel like because you “knew better”, can identify the problems, and you should have been able to stop yourself. 

The reality is that this is still new. You don’t have a complete strategy yet to deal with these problems. You can see them, but you can’t be assured you can avoid them at all times.

Another very common scenario is a setback coming after a period of success and progress. Let’s say you’ve had 2 to 3 weeks, maybe a month, of solid execution, making consistent money, and then all of a sudden, BOOM – one day erases all of it and you feel like everything you’ve just done has been wasted.

In my experience this scenario is most often caused by overconfidence. There’s a tendency to get ahead of yourself, to feel like you are past these problems, that you’ve done all this work and they’re never coming back. 

As one client put it, “I now understand my emotions and am cured.” This is an all too common myth. When knowledge and new skills are developed, they require regular attention. Two weeks, or even a month was just the beginning for this client to correct a long-standing pattern.  Not to mention he was making the common mistake of thinking you can solve your mental game permanently.

There is some good news. A scenario like this is often caused by a new problem. For example, tilt and lack of confidence may have been the original cause of concern, but now overconfidence has taken center stage. In a sense, this is a graduation. You failed forward. Your mental game evolved and you were tripped up for a new reason. Congratulations! You made enough progress for this to happen.

Lastly, some clients often fear a setback and believe that fear causes a setback. When you go through several instances of progress being immediately followed by a setback, you can start to get nervous when you are doing well, fearing a step back will inevitably follow. This isn’t irrational and it makes sense to wonder, “am I causing this? Is my fear causing my own demise?”

Your fear is causing you to not be at your best. That much we can be certain about. But in my experience, people stuck in this pattern either don’t yet have a mental game strategy or they have a strategy but need more proof that it works consistently enough to fully trust it. 

If you don’t have one, you need to develop your own, personalized mental game strategy. Or, if you have a strategy, let your setbacks show you where the holes are that you need to fill and keep at it.


What Do You Do After a Setback?

From a coaching perspective, I love a good setback. I know, I know. I sound like a sadist. I don’t want them to happen, but the fact is, the learning and lessons you can have from a setback can be transformational. So when they do happen I look for the insight that can help generate a jump forward.

When problems are particularly big, as they are at these times, it can be easier to see the full nature of what’s going on. Big, dramatic, setbacks give you a lot of information.  

Think of your problems as a volcano – when it erupts, it spews out the data you need to actually understand and solve the problem. In general, the bigger the blow up, the closer you get to the core of the issue. The lava is coming from deep within, because big problems are complicated.  Then it’s up to you to capture all the details of what came out from that blowout, make sense of it and develop a strategy. These big displays of emotion, whether it’s anger, fear, or overconfidence, contain the info you need to get started.

So first and foremost, you need to do a ton of writing to capture the data. It should be data collection on steroids. Second, you have to be on the lookout for overconfidence because it is just such a common problem after you make some progress. Indicators to watch out for are excuses to violate your rules, trading or playing at times that aren’t ideal, and having less motivation for key components of your routine such as study, preparation, or cool-downs.  Suddenly your general mentality is “I’ve got this” and you have a classic, inflated sense of having control over your future results.  

Third, you need a structured way of tracking your progress, whether on a daily or weekly basis, so you can reflect on key questions. What did you do well? What did you learn? What mistakes did you make? What can you do better tomorrow or next week? Take this opportunity to check in with yourself on a regular basis so you can get ahead of small problems that can build into bigger ones.

Setbacks are part of the process so the best you can do is learn enough to avoid what’s avoidable and to recover quickly when it’s not avoidable. 

If you think having additional support would help you, consider my new program, The Mental Game of Trading LIVE. Here’s a quote from one of the members of the beta test of this program:

“Jared zoned in on things I probably would never have identified on my own and provided great direction on steps to change emotions, patterns, and habits. I joined the course to become a better trader but now I feel like I’m a better person, husband, and father. This is the best money I’ve spent on self-development in a long time.” 

~ Eric Springer, aspiring full-time Futures & Crypto Trader


I find that when clients are in a drawdown, downswing, slump, or really struggling because of mental setbacks, that’s when they most often reach out for help. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can start preparing for the next setback by adopting a different perspective now, so when it happens you already know what to do.


Written by Jared Tendler

September 11, 2023

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