The Importance of Learning From Mistakes in Sports

Managing mistakes is a common mental game skill I help athletes with as a mental performance coach.

And I’ll be the first to tell you, mistakes suck!

They’re frustrating and not what you spent hours last week training to do. You trained not to make any mistakes and to play your best.

But as I was talking to a golfer about yesterday, when you play not to make mistakes, this is where you play tense and you underperform.

So we can’t fear mistakes or try to avoid them. Otherwise, the opposite occurs and you end up making more mistakes.

In addition to how you view mistakes going into games, managing mistakes also involves how you respond to mistakes once they do happen.

Respond negatively and this leads to a negative spiral. One that is difficult to dig your way out of.

Respond to mistakes in a more positive and productive way and you get yourself refocused, increasing your chances of playing well moving forward.

To respond more positively and productively takes you being able to learn from mistakes. 

And that’s exactly what you’ll know how to do by the end of this article.

Two Types of Learning in Terms of Mistakes

There are two types of learning you need to pay attention to when it comes to mistakes: long-term and short-term.

Long-term learning involves how you respond to mistakes following games. This is where you take lessons from mistakes and from the game and apply those lessons to practices and training.

You are viewing your game as a continual process of getting better.

That is an incredible perspective to take.

This allows you to build on your good games and use bad games to help you grow. Rather than having bad games tear down your confidence.

The second type of learning is short-term learning. This involves adjusting following mistakes during competition.

When you make a mistake during a game, you have two choices: get upset over the mistake and hold onto it, or learn from it, adjust, and move on.

Which option do you think leads to better play for the remainder of the game?

The second option.

When you hold onto mistakes and allow them to distract you, this leads to loss of composure. Instead of being focused on the next play, pitch, or drive, you are caught up in the past.

Playing in the past leads to fear and lower performance in the present moment.

In contrast, when you learn from mistakes and adjust, not only is it easier to leave them in the past, but you gain valuable insight that can help you improve for the rest of the game.

For example, if the player you’re defending blows by you, and then you learn from this and adjust, you will play better defense moving forward.

What Happens if You Don’t learn From Your Mistakes

When you fail to learn from your mistakes, this will have a negative impact on your game. Both long-term and short-term.

Let’s break down each type of learning and see how failing to apply both holds you back.

Failing to Learn Long-Term

Long-term learning as an athlete means you use mistakes as a way to improve. This requires a complete mindset shift in terms of how you view mistakes.

Mistakes can no longer be seen as purely negative. Afterall, they are tools you use to improve. 

How can anything you use to grow as a player be purely negative?

However, if you do not take such a perspective and you see mistakes as negative, this is where mistakes work to lower confidence and increase fear and anxiety.

If after every game you beat yourself up over your mistakes, what do you think that’s doing to your self-belief? How does that impact trust?

It lowers it.

Not to mention how awful you feel after games because of how much you beat yourself up.

When mistakes are seen as a negative, lowering confidence and creating negative emotions, this increases the fear of mistakes.

Going into games, you will find yourself afraid of making mistakes, which feeds into sports anxiety.

When you play with fear and anxiety, you play tense and timid and hold yourself back.

Since mistakes aren’t seen as a way to learn and improve long-term, they instead lower your confidence and cause you to play with fear and anxiety.

Failing to Learn in the Short-Term

Adjusting mid game is something elite competitors do very well. When their game isn’t going great, they can quickly change something or make a switch in their approach and turn the performance around.

But what happens when you don’t adjust from mistakes? What happens when mistakes, instead of being used to learn mid game, are a cause for frustration and loss of composure?

You will continue to make more mistakes.

Mistakes are a major distraction during games. If you can’t let go of what happened last play or last at bat, you will carry it with you.

And you won’t be carrying it with you in a productive way. Where you’re taking something valuable to use as an adjustment.

No. When mistakes distract you, it’s because of resistance. You are wishing the mistake hadn’t happened and you keep thinking about it.

In addition to being distracted by the previous mistake, when you don’t learn and adjust from mistakes mid game, this leads to fear.

If you are stuck resisting what happened last play, you’ll likely be hoping it doesn’t happen again. When you hope mistakes don’t happen, you fear mistakes. 

That is an easy recipe for more mistakes.

But when you do learn how to adjust mid game, mistakes no longer serve as a distraction, but rather an aid.

Strategy to Learn From Your Mistakes

Our goal is to turn mistakes into something productive. They are bound to happen, so why not try to use them in a helpful way?

It’s easy to beat yourself up over mistakes. It’s easy to get down on yourself and resist the mistake you just made.

It’s difficult to learn from mistakes and apply adjustments mid game and long-term.

But since it’s difficult, we know it’s a skill that will elevate your game and begin to separate you from your competitors.

And to learn from your mistakes in an effective way, you need a strategy.

Learning From Mistakes Long-Term

Learning from mistakes long-term is all about evaluating your practices and games in a more productive way.

If you want to learn from your mistakes, you have to be careful how you think and talk to yourself and others following performances.

While it may seem like you’re learning, hyper-focusing on mistakes and talking about how poorly you played isn’t actually doing any good.

Yeah, you may be focusing on your mistakes, but are you really taking the next step where you learn from them? Or are you stuck thinking about how terribly you played?

To help take the next step, you want to use a post-performance evaluation system.

The goal of a post-performance evaluation is to objectively examine your practice or game to identify both things you did well and things you can learn.

There are two goals when it comes to evaluating your performance: build confidence and improve.

Building confidence in sports takes reflection. You must focus on the things you did well. That’s taken care of with the first part of the evaluation process.

Improving requires you to learn from your mistakes and then think about how you can work on those mistakes during your next practice or game. That’s what the second part of the evaluation focuses on.

The evaluation process is comprised of two questions:

  • What did I do well today?
  • What can I learn from today?

The questions need to be answered in that order.

You always want to focus on what you did well first, and then examine what you can learn.

And you see how the second question is, what can I learn from today?, instead of, what did I do wrong today?

That’s because perspective is important. You need to take the perspective of someone wanting to learn instead of someone looking for what they did wrong.

This is a very simple evaluation process, but it’s powerful. 

If you use it consistently, you will build the habit of learning from mistakes long-term, instead of constantly beating yourself up after every practice and game.

Learning From Mistakes Short-Term

Learning from mistakes mid game is about speed.

It’s about being able to quickly take what you can from the mistake, use it to adjust, and then move on.

If you get too caught up in making the adjustment, trying to learn from the mistake all of a sudden becomes a cause of overthinking and will end up hurting your game, just as getting too upset over the mistake hurts your game.

So you need to make this quick.

And for it to be quick, learning from mistakes needs to be simple.

After games is the time to think through mistakes and do a full evaluation. That’s when you can take your time and truly examine what you can work on during the week.

It’s dangerous to get caught up in thinking how you need to work on something while you’re still in the middle of a competition.

But you can absolutely adjust.

The difference between the two is that when you adjust, you think of one simple thing you can do differently to fix whatever the mistake was.

When you think about how you need to work on something, this usually involves thinking of drills and exercises you can use throughout the week.

Once again, there’s a time for that. But during a game isn’t that time.

During the game, it’s all about adjusting as quickly as possible.

Now, there is a simple two part process to this that I’ve seen have the most success for the athletes I work with in 1-1 mental performance coaching.

The process begins by using what’s known as a thought-stopping phrase.

A thought-stopping phrase is a statement you say to yourself whenever you become distracted or have negative thoughts while playing.

The biggest block to adjusting quickly and learning from mistakes during games is frustration. If you get too upset or down on yourself following a mistake, the chances of you learning and moving on rapidly drop.

Managing this frustration is what a thought-stopping phrase aims to do.

Here’s an example of a thought-stopping phrase: let it go, breathe, learn.

You first tell yourself to let it go (referring to the mistake). Then you take a few deep breaths (however many the time you have allows) to calm yourself down. Then you remind yourself to learn.

Once you’ve applied your thought-stopping phrase, it’s time to adjust.

Your goal is to think of one simple adjustment you can make. Yes, there may be four or five things you could do differently, but how realistic is it you’ll actually do all five?

More than likely, the more adjustments you try to make, the less effective any of the adjustments will be.

Think of one simple adjustment and then apply it to your game.

If you continue to make mistakes, repeat the process. But always aim to keep your adjustment as simple as possible during a game.

Final Thoughts

Mistakes are incredible teachers…if you know how to use them to learn.

But they can also be a one-way ticket to self-doubt, fear, and frustration.

It all depends on how you respond to mistakes, both following games and during games.

After games, you want to use an evaluation process to learn from your mistakes long-term.

During games, you want to use a thought-stopping phrase to move past the frustration, and then think of one simple adjustment you can make.

By applying these two strategies, you turn mistakes into something that helps you grow and improve as a player, instead of something that holds you back.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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