Since we’ve all been riveted recently by championship college basketball, it’s appropriate to quote the wisdom of UNC  coaching legend Dean Smith.  He said, “What do you do with a mistake? Recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it.” Performance missteps can be costly, and that isn’t simply in reference to a game loss. From a missed shot to an inadequate pass, both minor and major mistakes can plague athletes and result in even more mistakes and an inability to get back on track.


Not every athlete is born with intrinsic confidence, but it can be an acquired trait. Achieving a champion mentality involves the ability to refocus and move beyond the mistakes; it requires learning and letting go. Here are four steps to getting your athletes back to peak performance level when a mistake threatens to wreak havoc. 

  1. Acknowledge Mistakes

It doesn’t pay to sweep things under the proverbial carpet; it’s tough to learn from mistakes when you simply ignore them. While overcoming a fear of failure ultimately comes down to not dwelling on past errors, it’s important to at least recognize mistakes and assign them their proper place on the path to moving forward. 

A vital facet of the coach-athlete relationship is consistent communication. Expectations run high, so it’s crucial for coaches to offer genuine care, interest, understanding, and positive reinforcement. When you provide a safe space for your athletes to recognize and own up to mistakes, you’re offering a platform for growth and preventing the mistake from happening all over again. 

  1. Allow the Space for Emotional Growth

Harping on mistakes and shortcomings isn’t healthy, but there’s something to be said for easing tension through free expression. Allowing room for grief and frustration leads to letting it out and letting it go. Emotional growth doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t come from shoving feelings aside; it’s the byproduct of pushing through challenges and rising above them.

Keep errors in perspective — give your athletes room to express themselves productively before encouraging them to move on.

  1. Work Toward a Mental Reset

Being trapped in an endless loop of negative feedback leaves little room for progress. 

It’s often difficult to stop the cycle of negativity to focus on the present, but it’s an essential step. Mistakes can steal a player’s focus and mental edge, causing them to remain stuck in a prior practice or game rather than remaining fully present. If an athlete appears poised to repeat mistakes of the past, help them harness that mental energy and climb out of the downward spiral. Identify the distractions that threaten to sabotage their performance, and refocus their attention on the present — without the weight of judgment or expectations. Even practicing meditation or relaxation techniques on the sidelines is a step in the right direction.

  1. Check expectations at the locker room door.

Expectations are often the root cause of anger or frustration over mistakes, whether they’re self-imposed or come from external influences. To better set up your athletes for success, remove the heightened expectations that are anchoring them. 

To lose the competition is tough; to feel you’ve disappointed everyone — your coach, your teammates, yourself — is worse. Athletes should always be prepared for unexpected challenges, and this requires being task-focused versus worrying about results. As a coach, setting standards is imperative, but your most valuable players will be those who can play freely, maintain focus, learn from errors, and let go of mistakes quickly to focus on the next play even when they don’t meet those standards.

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