Letting Go Of Mistakes
Dear Dr. Sam: My 16-year-old son is a gifted athlete who plays three sports (baseball, soccer, and basketball) at a competitive level. When he is on, he shines. Sometimes, though, he will make a mistake, and it completely derails him. You can see it on his face—he just can’t seem to shake it off. Often, one mistake will then lead to two or three. This doesn’t happen every game, but when it does, it becomes problematic. The worst part of it is that he is so upset after the game that he doesn’t seem to be enjoying his sport sometimes. Can you help?
Dear CB: Your timing is great, as I recently tweeted a thread about this exact topic. I will try to unpack and elaborate a little more here.
The majority of my athlete clients come to me for one or more of the following “big three” struggles: (1) confidence, (2) pre-game jitters, and (3) difficulty letting go of mistakes. These are not unique to any sport or level, as I find they are some of the biggest mental obstacles for athletes in middle school sports all the way to professional sports. They also occur in both team and individual settings. And I see this in my corporate clients too!
Concerning letting go of mistakes, part of it is a brain issue. I’ll avoid getting into too much detail, but having a basic understanding can be helpful. When we first learn a skill, we use part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is very conscious and step-by-step. Once a skill is learned, it is stored in a different part of the brain, the motor cortex. This part of the brain is more unconscious. So, when first learning to tie your shoes, drive a car, throw/catch/hit a ball, it is very sequential and conscious and stored in the prefrontal cortex. To perform the skill, we need to think about a lot of information. Once the skill becomes automatic and stored in the motor cortex, we don’t even think about it anymore—we just do it.
After a mistake, though, we sometimes think about performing a skill MORE. We say things like, “Keep your head down,” “Keep your shoulder up,” “Shift your weight,” “Follow through,” etc. When we do this, we are shifting from performing an effortless, fluid, and automatic skill (motor cortex) to an analytic, conscious, and inefficient skill (prefrontal cortex). Thus, the solution is to think LESS. (If you are interested in learning more about how the brain impacts performance, check out Focus by Daniel Goleman and The Brain Always Wins by John Sullivan and Chris Parker.)
Since part of the issue is one of focus, this is often where a sport psychologist will start. When dwelling on a mistake, we are either stuck in the past or worried about the future implications. Either way, we can't change the past or control the future. Some common ways to refocus on the present are to focus on breathing or using focal points. This is sometimes referred to as centering. Another way is to have the athlete name things they see in front of them: “I see the white chalk line, brown dirt, green blades of grass, a candy wrapper.” Doing this forces our focus back to the present.
Some psychologists will use cognitive-behavioral techniques, such as thought-stopping or reframing. Additionally, a great tool to try is the six-column technique. Sometimes, though, I find that we need a physical cue to let go of the mistake. For example, grab a handful of dirt, and imagine that the dirt represents the mistake. Carry it in your hand as long as you want to obsess about the mistake. When you are ready to let the mistake go, let the dirt go. It is hard to play a sport with a handful of dirt, so they will have to let it go at some point.
Other times, it may be easier to try thought replacement instead of thought stopping. Occupying the brain with something unrelated—and that doesn’t use the prefrontal cortex—can help. Some of my clients will hum/sing a song, for example.
In the end, the solution might entail taking the sting out of the mistake. I discuss this a bit in my previous article on growth mindset. The trick is to reframe the mistake as feedback. We pay a lot of money for coaching feedback and individualized instruction. Mistakes can be just as helpful, and the good news is that they are free!
To help develop a growth mindset, I like to have my clients keep a journal with three columns. Column one is the mistake, column two is what was learned, and column three is the adjustment going forward. The adjustment could be physical, technical, tactical, or mental. Here are some examples.
Technical: In soccer, I take a shot on goal, and it sails over the crossbar. That was the mistake. In the 2nd column, I'd list that I was probably leaning too far back. In the 3rd column, I'd list strategies to keep my weight going forward (e.g., chest over ball). Note: Make the correction, but we don’t necessarily want the athlete thinking about it.
Tactical: In football, I am a WR that keeps getting jammed and can't run my crossing route. That's the mistake. The learning is that they are playing cover 2. The adjustment might be to find the hole up the sideline behind the cornerback or to sit in between the safeties.
Mental: I'm on the first tee in golf, and everyone is watching. I hit a nasty slice out of bounds. That's the mistake. I learned that I was trying to crush the ball to impress my friends. The adjustment could be to take a deep breath and visualize a nice shot.
Physical: The correction here may not be as immediate, as it may mean developing more strength or flexibility, or it may mean getting better sleep or nutrition.
After doing this exercise repeatedly, it will eventually become more automatic in the brain and you won’t need the journal anymore. Moreover, the mistake will begin to viewed as a learning opportunity.
I hope one or more of these techniques can help your athlete let go of their mistakes. If you get a moment, let me know how they worked.
Dr. Sam Maniar is the Founder & President of the Center for Peak Performance, LLC, where he and his team provide sport psychology and business consultation. He has worked with thousands of professional, college, and school-aged athletes and teams, including the Cleveland Browns, Ohio State Buckeyes, and the Chicago Cubs. If you would like Dr. Sam to answer your question in a future column, send it via Twitter to @sam_maniar (also be sure to use the hashtag #AskDrSam) or email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and use “Ask Dr. Sam” as the subject.