How To Process Your Mistakes Correctly To Improve Performance
WORKING TOWARDS PERFECTION
How do you handle mistakes? Do you get angry and beat yourself up for being “stupid”? Do you blame someone else? Do you hope it won’t happen again? Or do you just chalk it up to another bad day and give up? The key to a successful performance is to expect that mistakes will happen and learn how to manage them when they do.
Many of us are told that we’re supposed to work towards perfection. That makes sense— if you set the bar to impossible, you’ll at least get close, right? But constantly trying to achieve perfection isn’t always worth it, simply because the expectation of perfection can be stifling. It can be harmful for players to believe that their biggest achievement is reaching the unreachable. It causes an athlete to define themselves by what they can’t do (be perfect) rather than what they can do (achieve excellence). It’s not coincidental that we tend to make more mistakes when under more pressure. Plus, a highly perfectionistic attitude can easily take the fun out of competition.
But what does happen when (because it’s when, not if) you make a mistake? Minimizing mistakes, rather than pretending you can eliminate them, is essential to raising your level of performance. I created two different processes for managing those mistakes, one for training, one for competition, because your mindset should be different for those two environments.
MANAGING MISTAKES IN PRACTICE
During practice, the goal for managing your mistakes is to correct them. Once you’ve owned your mistake, analyze it closely. Do not just use it to dismiss yourself as a player. Identify exactly what you did and exactly what happened. “My backhand volley went into the net when my opponent hit a slice to the mid court on set point.” Being specific will help you (and your coach) to discover any behavior patterns that need attention. Not all mistakes are equal; if a mistake turned out to be part of a chronic problem, you’d want that information as soon as possible to practice the correction. Often mistakes are occasional mental lapses. It’s important to know the difference in order to make the appropriate correction.
Once you consciously define your mistake, identify what kind of mistake was made: technical, strategic, mental, emotional, or physical. These categories are largely self-explanatory, but a useful strategy of mental organization. They’ll help you stay logical when you analyze your weaknesses, and pinpoint certain areas that you consistently struggle with.
I’ve heard many athletes and coaches remark, “what were you thinking?” after a mistake was made. It’s actually a good question-- this kind of analysis is critical to correcting your problems. Maybe it looks like you chose the wrong strategy, when really the mistake was a mental miscue and a loss of focus. Once you figure out what mistake you made, you’ll know why you made it, and you and your coach can easily start on the path to correct it.
MANAGING MISTAKES IN COMPETITION
Mistake management in competition works a bit differently. It would be great if you could always correct your mistakes, but no one has time to conduct a detailed analysis in the middle of a game. In fact, over thinking your mistakes during competition can cause additional problems, what I call “paralysis by analysis.” If you have a moment or two to learn from what happened, take it; if not, file it away for examining later.
Release, Refocus, and Replace
I call this skill release, and it’s essential for competition. Learn to release yourself from, well, yourself. Your mistake is history. There’s nothing you can do to change it. While you may feel disappointed, frustrated, or angry, it is critical to your performance that you let it go and move on. You can do this most easily by redirecting your thoughts somewhere else. Ask yourself, “What’s Important Now?” Think about your next play or double down on your opponent; whatever it takes to move on from the negative mindset that sometimes comes after a mistake. Instead of worrying about what you did, try to replace it with a more effective action. Think of the three R’s to keep yourself from getting bogged down: Release the past, Refocus on the present, and Replace with more effective action.
Making improvement doesn’t always mean making no mistakes. I think a more accurate ideal to strive towards is managing mistakes to have smallest possible impact on your performance. In order to do that, you’ve got to practice dealing with mistakes the same way you practice not making them. There is no need to feel ashamed or afraid of messing up. In all likelihood, a mistake won’t cost you the game, or lower your overall playing ability— but, your response to it can.