Long-term investors understand that how an investment performs over short periods of time isn't very important, especially in the context of an investing strategy designed to work over decades. But that doesn't make it any easier to sit through the bad times when they come.

Taking great funds to the woodshed
2008 crushed a lot of investors, and many top fund managers suffered from the market's huge reversal of fortune. Just take a look at how these top funds did:

Fund

2008 Return

10-Year Annualized Return

10-Year Rank Among Similar Funds

Oakmark I (OAKMX)

(32.6%)

3.2%

Top 9%

Yacktman (YACKX)

(26.1%)

9.6%

Top 1%

Wasatch Core Growth (WGROX)

(44.3%)

8.3%

Top 4%

Source: Morningstar.

Even though Oakmark and Yacktman didn't lose as much money as the overall market did -- the S&P fell 37% in 2008 -- longtime investors couldn't have been happy to see a quarter or more of their value go up in smoke. And Wasatch's absolutely terrible year was even more difficult to endure.

Perhaps more importantly, 2008 only marked another chapter in a long spell of underperformance for these funds. Oakmark, for instance, lost money in 2005 and 2007, despite winning years for the overall market. Yacktman finished in the bottom quarter of its fund category three years in a row from 2004 to 2006. And for Wasatch, 2008 was the fourth year in a row that the fund did worse than its category average.

Bouncing back
Yet each of these funds has bounced back impressively so far this year. For Oakmark, consistent performance from many of its holdings, including Texas Instruments (NYSE:TXN), Tyco International (NYSE:TYC), and Walgreen (NYSE:WAG), has pushed the fund to nearly a 35% gain for 2009.

Yacktman has seen some of its holdings perform even better. The portfolio sports some stocks that have doubled, including Americredit and USG (NYSE:USG). Shares of Liberty Media Interactive (NASDAQ:LINTA) have more than tripled. As a result, the fund is up nearly 50% for the year.

Finally, with Wasatch, the fund returned to its small-cap roots with explosive growth from little-known tiny companies like Emeritus (NYSE:ESC) and Life Time Fitness (NYSE:LTM). A 37% gain for 2009 has shareholders smiling again.

Do top funds deserve the benefit of the doubt?
The difficulties that these top funds have gone through in recent years didn't make things easy for shareholders. When experienced fund managers seem to lose their touch, it's tough to stand by and watch as your wealth evaporates, regardless of how well-intentioned their investing decisions may have been.

Yet what investors need to realize is that even funds that put together impressive track records over the years don't typically go up in a straight line. Even Warren Buffett doesn't manage to beat the S&P every year. Still, despite the occasional rough patches, experienced money managers usually come through and regain their success once market conditions change.

That's why the fact that these top funds have recovered isn't very surprising. Each of the funds has retained its current fund managers since 2000 or before, so it isn't as though a new management team is simply riding the coattails of its predecessors without having proven capable of repeating their performance. Instead, each of these funds has adapted to the difficult investing environment and found ways to capitalize on the opportunities that the market's big drop last year gave them.

Sticking with the best
Given how rare it is to find mutual funds that deliver consistent outperformance over the long haul, you shouldn't simply give up on a winning fund just because it goes through a rough patch. Often, you'll find that the fund bounces back enough to earn back its losses, disappointing only those investors who chose to get out at exactly the worst time.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has stuck with many of his best funds through thick and thin. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. USG is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Oakmark I and Yacktman are both Champion Fund selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. We'll always hang on to The Fool's disclosure policy.