How to Handle Mistakes During Games

Learn how to handle mistakes better during games to make sure one mistake doesn't turn into more!

What do mistakes mean to you? Are they something you fear, or do you see them as lessons?

Mistakes are powerful, no matter which perspective you take. If you are afraid of making mistakes, they powerfully hurt your game. But if you see them as lessons, they can be a powerful tool to elevate your game.

Going into a game, if you fear mistakes, you’ll find yourself playing more tight and timidly. There is a lot of fear in your mind, which can lead to you playing with the goal of not messing up, instead of trying to play well.

But what I want to focus on in this article is the way you handle mistakes during a game. Making sure you are responding to mistakes in the moment in a way that helps you, instead of increasing your chances of making another mistake.

The Natural Way of Reacting to Mistakes

Is your goal to play well or make mistakes? Of course your goal is to play well! That’s why you practice, train so hard, and compete to begin with. You’re not out there with the intent of messing up.

Knowing this, it’s easy to see why the natural response to making mistakes is getting mad at yourself.

I had a session yesterday with a quarterback who told me about a bad throw he made during his game last week. It was an easy pass and he simply overthrew the receiver.

The reason he brought it up to me was because he said he needs to work on handling the frustration he feels following the bad throw.

He felt it was an easy throw for him to make. It’s one he’s practiced a lot, and to overthrow it in the game left him feeling frustrated with himself. This is the natural way of responding to mistakes – getting mad at yourself.

Since the mistake wasn’t your goal, you aren’t going to be happy about it. However, not being happy about the mistake does not mean the only other option is being mad at yourself. There is a middle ground which I’ll talk about in a second.

But for now, let’s take a look at what happens when you allow the natural frustration you feel to stick around.

How One Mistake Leads to Two

Why should you worry about handling mistakes during games in a more positive and productive way in the first place? Why not allow yourself to stay mad, since you didn’t want to screw up to begin with?

Well, the reason has to do with how the frustration impacts your play.

For the most part, getting mad at yourself over a mistake will only distract you moving forward. This is where we see one mistake turn into two, or three. It’s a snowball effect.

Not only does it distract you, but imagine what happens to your confidence if you keep thinking about your mistake.

I asked the quarterback how he felt about making that exact throw again after he overthrew the receiver. He said he was doubting himself and wasn’t as confident in the throw.

If you are still thinking about the mistake you just made, since you’re upset about it, you will be distracted and your confidence will go down.

Now, does poor focus and self-doubt sound like a recipé for playing well? Absolutely not! It sounds like a great recipé for making another mistake, which is typically what happens when you allow your frustrations to take over.

Learning to Handle Mistakes Differently

Instead of allowing yourself to get mad over a mistake, there’s a better way of viewing mistakes and handling them in the moment. One that will help you move on quicker and play better as a result.

Now, before we go any further, I do want to mention one thing. With this strategy, your goal isn’t not to get made. I know, it sounds a bit contradictory. But there’s a reason I said getting mad is a natural response…because it’s natural.

Your goal is to handle the mistake differently. That includes handling the frustration you feel differently. You’re still going to feel frustrated and be a little mad about the mistake. After all, your goal isn’t to make mistakes.

What matters is how you handle the anger or embarassment you feel – and how quickly you can let it go. And this is going to involve two steps.

Step #1: Calm Yourself Down

Getting angry is an emotional reaction, and a very strong one at that. Before you’re going to be able to think differently following a mistake, you need to calm yourself down and reduce the anger you feel.

As simple as it sounds, the best way to do so is by taking a few deep breaths.

By taking some deep breaths, you do two things: one, you calm yourself down since the deep breaths help you relax. And two, you begin to take your attention off the mistake by focusing on your breathing.

Now, when you take deep breaths, you want to use count breathing. This is where you breathe in for a certain count and out for a certain count. A great rhythm is in for five and out for five.

Also, make sure you are breathing into your stomach. Don’t breathe too shallow into your chest. Imagine there is a balloon expanding where your belly button is and allow yourself to take nice deep breaths.

Step #2: Learn, Don’t Judge

When you are angry, you are judging yourself. You are thinking about how terribly you just did and how you can’t believe you could make such a stupid mistake.

This kind of judgment is only going to make the frustration you feel worse. Instead, you want to take more of an objective view.

An objective view means you look at the mistake and think, why did I make that mistake and what can I learn?

You may already be asking these kinds of questions without even knowing it.

When I asked the quarterback what kinds of thoughts he had after a mistake, one of the things he said was, how did I overthrow that ball?

You see how that’s a question? His mind was already searching for an answer. You want to give yourself the answer, instead of asking more questions that only lead to further frustration.

Once you identify why you made the mistake, you can quickly think about what you can do differently, make the adjustment, and then move on.

That’s how you take a mistake, learn from it in the moment, and use it to improve your game moving forward.

Final Thoughts

Mistakes are incredibly frustrating, since your goal is to play your best. Mistakes can indicate you aren’t playing your best, and quickly lead to you getting mad at yourself.

But getting mad over a mistake often leads to more mistakes. So your job is to handle the mistake in a more productive way.

What you want to do is first take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down. Then, take an objective view of the mistake, looking for something you can learn and use to improve moving forward.

By doing so, you take something that was originally a negative and turn it into a way of growing as a player.

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

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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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