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Mistakes. Should we make more?

           Who doesn’t make mistakes? We all do. It is part of life, but in sports they are often thought of as inexcusable and to be avoided at all costs. Who can forget Bill Buckner’s through the legs error in game six of the World Series, or Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bill’s going far right in Super Bowl XXV?


            Is it fair? Not as far as I am concerned. But it does explain why athletes can become so terrified about making mistakes and thus experience the disappointment of coaches, teammates, and fans. In my role as a Sports Psychologist, I have been fortunate to work with athletes of all levels, from elite, college, to youth, and they all struggle with the fear of making mistakes and how to recover from them.


            The irony is, that at some point in the future, this fear will be realized. Guaranteed. No one plays the perfect game or has the perfect career. Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is a man who never does anything.”


            In my experience, mistakes can be a great teacher in sports, as in life. So how should we handle making them? The first step is to acknowledge the mistake. I encourage athletes to embrace the mistake, own it with pride, much like a badge of honor. What makes these athletes special is that they are willing to put themselves in a position where failure and mistakes are possible, if not probable.So, when it happens the athlete must own the mistake, the mistake cannot own the athlete.


            The next step is to understand how the mistake occurred in the first place, and accept that it did. Not all athletes are willing to do this. Many athletes would rather deny that they are at fault, as this can affect their confidence. But those that do accept this reality can find it not only valuable but also liberating.


            Next is to learn from the mistake. The athlete needs to learn why the action was wrong, why it occurred, and how to prevent it from happening again. By doing so the athlete is less likely to repeat the mistake, thus instantly becoming a better player and more valuable to his team.


            The final step is to move on. The athlete should forget about the mistake, whilst still remembering the lessons it taught. Many athletes find this a difficult transition, fearing that they will repeat the mistake. When this occurs I encourage athletes to use the SUMO technique. SUMO stands for Shut Up and Move On. We cannot change the past, but we can let it shape our future. So when we make a mistake we must acknowledge it, understand it, learn from it, and then SUMO.


             If mistakes can teach us so much, should we be so afraid of making them? Whilst still preaching standards of excellence, should coaches not give their players the freedom to try things that they would previously be too scared to do? Perhaps if we weren’t so petrified of making mistakes, the mistakes would not occur.


In the words of John Wooden, the great UCLA Basketball coach, “If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

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