Our friend and mental toughness coach Spencer Wood was kind enough to share the following tips to overcoming mistakes.
Errors are usually mechanical, tactical, or mental. This is important to understand because a mechanical error involves motor mechanics (such as a golfer moving his/her head too early, or a basketball player not squaring his/her feet and hips to the basket and shooting off-balance). Sometimes, these errors are relatively easy to fix without too much work needed on the mental side of the game. However, left unchecked, these poor mechanics can not only lead to longer-term skill slumps due to the bad mechanics, but can also weaken poise, focus, and ultimately confidence.
Sometimes an error can be tactical. For example, a soccer player not executing the timing of an off-side trap, or a basketball player may not execute a defensive assignment because he/she did not understand or just forgot the correct rotation on the run-and-jump trapping press defense that the team is playing. Like mechanical errors, tactical errors can also weaken confidence, leading to other issues connected to poise, focus, and even commitment if left unchecked.
While many tactical errors can involve mental processes, there is an additional third category of mistakes that is purely mental, and this common reason for mistakes typically involves one or more of the 4 C’s, namely composure, concentration, confidence and/or commitment.
At times, a large game-changing mistake can quickly compound, leading to additional mental and physical inconsistency and error, sometimes leading to a downward spiral of frustration and poor play. This phenomenon is one of the reasons we often see the wild momentum swings that are so common in sports as confidence spirals up for one player or team, and down for another. For some athletes, this negative chain reaction can be set off by the smallest of errors. You typically see this type of reaction in the stereotypical ‘perfectionist’ athletes who bring tremendous commitment in practice and in games, and even put in the extra time outside of mandatory practice, but are also incredibly hard on themselves for even the smallest of mistakes.
To effectively bounce back from mistakes it is critical to control the emotional response from that mistake so that poise does not deteriorate further. I encourage athletes to mentally acknowledge disappointment for the mistake but to be kind to themselves while they are doing so.
For example, an athlete whose inner voice says “shoot, I hate what just happened….I am better than that…and will be better than that” has acknowledged the mistake while being kind to himself/herself.
An athlete who mentally responds with inner voice language along the lines of “I can’t believe that just happened…not here….not now….this is bad….coach is gonna go crazy…I just cannot accept this type of play from myself!”, has acknowledged the mistake poorly and has also not been kind to himself/herself.
This part of the reaction is critical because following a mistake, the mind can act like a mental pressure cooker that needs to blow off some steam at critical times, but that process cannot come at the risk of destroying poise (something that happens to so many athletes who have a meltdown after a mistake) or ruining confidence (something that happens to athletes who constantly berate themselves after a mistake).
The next part of the ideal reaction should be the easiest to control, and that is by showing ‘play of the game’ body language following a mistake. If we were watching the athlete on TV with the mute button on and we just started watching the game following the incident/mistake, we should not be able to tell whether the athlete had just made the best play of the game or the worst play of the game.
Unfortunately, most athletes just do not respond to a mistake with tough body language (ie head up, eyes up, chest up) and their negative body language and obvious frustration only compound their mistake, further weakens their poise, negatively impacts their teammates, deflates their fans, and gives confidence and energy to the opponent.
Alternatively, the correct mental and physical reaction to a mistake that we have discussed will allow the athlete to mentally ‘flush’ the mistake quickly and effectively, minimize the risk of compounding the mistake, and for the elite athlete, actually provide them with a short pause and opportunity to actually increase levels of poise, focus, and confidence.