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Sports Expert Q&A: What is the best way to bounce back after making a mistake during a game?

Every day, CaptainU is working with experts in all areas of cutting edge sports. Each week, we’ll be hosting a Q&A between multiple experts in one genre who have answered a pressing question from athletes.

This week, we talked with Jennifer E. Carter, Ph.D. Director of Sport Psychology at OSU, Gregory A. Dale, Director of the Sport Psychology and Leadership Programs for Duke Athletics, and Siana Stone, sport psychology consultant at Springfield College.


What is the best way to bounce back after making a mistake during a game: Jennifer E. Carter

1. Execute individualized pre-performance routine. Each athlete needs a consistent routine, including sleep, nutrition, and warm-up. Some athletes benefit from mentally rehearsing and preparing (imagery), and others benefit from complete distraction (TV, movies, reading, studying). Some athletes like to be high energy and some like to be calmer. Some need to listen to music and others need to joke around.

2. Diaphragmatic breathing (Belly breathing)

3. Repeat Trigger Word (A word or phrase about the task at hand, like “Quick and loose” or “Stay low” or “Smile” or “Aggressive”)

What is the best way to bounce back after making a mistake during a game: Gregory A. Dale

As a captain or leader on your team, it is important that you able to bounce back from a mistake. Your teammates and coaches are depending on you to do just that. In my work with athletes at Duke as well as at the professional and Olympic levels, I try to help them learn to let go. You are human and working hard to perform well, so it’s unrealistic to think it is easy to move on from a mistake. However, I would encourage you to follow the 3-second rule. Give yourself 3 seconds to deal with the mistake and then move on. In that 3 seconds you can’t let your teammates or opponent see you are struggling. Keep your head up and avoid pouting, hanging your head, kicking the ground or throwing things. It demonstrates you are not mentally tough if you exhibit any of those behaviors. Then find a physical cue to let the mistake go. Several athletes at Duke will simply put their index and middle fingers together and make a motion like they are flushing a toilet. They do it where no one else might notice it, but it is a way for them to get rid of the mistake as they imagine it going down the toilet and then they are ready to focus on the next play. One last part of letting go of a mistake is to talk to yourself in that moment in a way you would encourage a teammate after he or she made a mistake. We are typically much harder on ourselves than we would be with a teammate and we would certainly never let them talk to us like we do when we are being negative with ourselves. Encourage yourself and be your own coach. Practice these strategies in practice and they will certainly help you learn to move on from mistakes.

What is the best way to bounce back after making a mistake during a game: Sianna Stone

This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on the individual athlete who made the mistake and what they consider to be a mistake. Working with an athletic counselor could help you to investigate what a mistake in a game means to you and maybe what might have caused the mistake to later affect your play. For instance, if a baseball player makes an error, this could be considered a mistake for that player. However, only making one error, even though in the eyes of spectators could be considered failure… might be interpreted as a success for that athlete. Thus, it is important for those not to assume how the “mistake” is being perceived by the athlete himself. Sticking with the baseball example, if the athlete makes one error and then later strikes out, makes more errors, cannot make it to first base, or cannot hit the strike zone (all of this of course depending on the position of the player) etc.; the athlete continues throughout the game to make mistakes simply because the first one was made, this might be where an athletic counselor could intervene. The athletic counselor may later be able to use techniques that could improve focus/attention (using imagery and/or relaxation techniques), positive self-talk (e.g. changing their internal language to “I believe I can make contact with the bat” vs. “don’t strike out”), and goal setting (e.g. bringing awareness to the athlete’s actual skill and aligning the new information with realistic positive outcomes: “This game I will make a conscious effort to move past my mistakes”). Again, other things may be causing errors to be made, this is just one example since other things may be affecting that athlete’s play (home life, coaches, teammates, fan/crowd response, etc.).


Siana Stone is a second year Master’s student at Springfield College. She graduated with her B. A. in psychology from the University of Hartford, Summa Cum Laude in May of 2013. She has attained over 250 supervised hours in working with athletes at the NCAA Division 1 and Division 3 levels. You can follow her on instagram here.

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