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Reframing AlphaGo - When Failure is not an Option!

by Frances Coombes(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 265 - September 2020

The belief that ‘failure is not an option’ is often used to spur people on to greater achievement; but it can also destroy them. Perfectionist traits can stir dysfunctional unhealthy negative emotions, resulting in anxiety and paralysing fear.  Having a reframe strategy can help us all to acknowledge when we have been beaten and to live to fight another day.  If we can come to terms with not measuring up to our own, or other peoples’, expectations of us then this gives us space for more possibilities to emerge.


I watched 18-time world champion Go player, Lee Sidol, in the Google DeepMind Challenge Match as he played against an algorithm. The AlphaGo computer learns by playing large numbers of games against opponents which reinforces and improves its play

It was fascinating and deeply unsettling to watch this supremely confident world class player beaten 4-1 by a computer, sink into crumpled dejection over the course of the five day match.  No doubt his humiliation was intensified by knowing the game was being viewed live by over 200 million fans. 

Even the London based DeepMind technology group who developed the algorithm seemed uneasy and subdued in their expression of victory. What could any coach have done to help the player during the game?  Sidol, 36-year-old former world champion announced his retirement in December after saying he was “up against a foe that cannot be defeated.”

Competitive people are often their own harshest critics, judging their total self-worth by whether they win or lose a game.  When we treat ourselves like human thermometers that must be 100 per cent perfect on everything they do, then something like failure can feel like annihilation because our identity is wrapped up in constantly winning.  We lose perspective and the insight to see that as human beings we are all unique and much too complicated to have our feeling of self-worth judged by whether we can play a certain stroke or technique to perfectionist standards. 

Create a Better Environment – Have a More Level Playing Field

The DeepMind competition was a David and Goliath confrontation that would see human strategic thinking overtaken by a machine. AlphaGo calculates millions of positions a second to learn and improve its play, whereas a human being’s thinking capability is limited to their training and Life experience. What Lee required was a more level playing field and a massive mental reframe to help him live to play another championship.

Reframing is an Important Part of Life

We need the ability to have a change in perspective in order to move on.  But often in defeat our thinking becomes stuck like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming lorry.

Reframing our thoughts about events is part of our normal lives.  One day we like the job we’re doing, the next day we don’t. We may meet what we think of as the person of our dreams and six months later wonder what we ever saw in them. What has taken place is a reframe – a change in our thinking that alters the way be behave. Usually we do it ourselves but sometimes, if we are stuck in an unhelpful repetitive thinking loop, we need help from coaches or people who see things from a different perspective.

There are Usually at Least Three Perspectives in any Situation: 

1.     The opposition’s point of view:  The match was an opportunity to demonstrate Google’s artificial intelligence capabilities to the world, and to integrate Lee Sidol’s thinking strategies into its own algorithm;

2.     The onlooker’s viewpoint:  The game was watched by over 60 million viewers and all of them are routing for Lee Sidol to win against the AlphaGo algorithm;.

3.     The player’s perspective:   Sidol came to the game believing he could not fail.  And from the way he folded it appeared he had not seriously entertained that thought. Yet he was a human being playing a machine that improved with every game it played. Afterwards he conceded he was ‘up against a foe that cannot be defeated’.


Reframe – Don’t Give Human Characteristics to Inanimate Objects

The championship matches were displayed to look as if it were being played by two human components when it was not.  This put Sidol at a disadvantage because it is a human characteristic that we imagine inanimate objects, like computers, are human when they are not. 

Neuroscience research has shown that similar brain regions are involved when we think about the behaviour of both humans and nonhumans such as when we talk to the computer voice recognition system ‘Alexa’ We may talk to our pets as if they can understand us and expect them to answer us back. What’s happening here is anthropomorphism; attributing human characteristics, emotions and behaviours to non-human things.

Although we knew Sidol’s opponent was not human, all our thoughts and emotions acted as if it were, hence the reason spectators were upset.  But in reality this is like comparing a marathon runner to a Ferrari sports car in a race and expecting him still to have the mind-set that he might win.  The reframe would be to look at how far he could realistically run and still be considered a worthy human champion.

It becomes very important when humans play machines that what is happening is illustrated in a way that measures how well the human is doing as a human being pitted against a computer and to have it reframed in a visual way, not just showing the algorithm’s power to defeat a human.  If a computer needs to play two million games and integrate the intelligence of the most strategic players in the world in order to win, it would still have won, but should the event still be seen as a lionised victory? 

And what has happened to Lee Sidol?

Well he retired from world championship playing and licked his wounds for a while saying that he could never be the top overall player of Go ‘due to the increasing dominance of artificial intelligence’.  (I hope the other 40 million active players don’t feel this way too or it could be the end of this 2,500 year old game.)

Sidol has since come out of retirement and won a match over another computer algorithm called HanDol, built by Korean gaming company NHN.  It seems Sidol has reframed his thinking after all and discovered a powerful new move – making lots more money from infrequent Go playing and endorsing products as the world’s most strategic thinking human Go player.


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About Frances Coombes

Frances Coombes Advanced Dip CBT/REBT Dip CBT offers one-to-one therapeutic coaching in North West London and on Zoom.  She is a is a CBT/REBT psychotherapist in North West London, a NLP Master Practitioner and Rational Emotional Behaviour Therapist and runs life coaching groups in London and on Zoom.  She teaches NLP at The City Lit in Central London and tutors at the City Lit and Mary Ward Centre in central London on Using REBT for Managing Stress and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). She runs goal setting and REBT coaching groups for vulnerable people for inner London authorities and charities.  

Her most recent book is Motivate Yourself and Reach Your Goals, pub, November 2013, Hodder Headline. Available on and  For extract visit To inquire or book personal development courses contact Frances on Tel: 07818 896 795; 


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