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Recover from mistakes with proactive strategies

By Susan Halden-Brown

Having made a mistake—any kind of mistake—your immediate task is to get back on track. To do so, you need to apply the three Rs: Recover, Refocus, and Retry.

  • Recover: Catch yourself by the scruff and get a grip on the situation.
  • Refocus: Get your mind back on the job... now.
  • Retry: Do it differently this time.

All this needs to happen within a few seconds. Naturally, if you haven’t done it before, you’ll... er ... make mistakes. Press on regardless, practice as though it’s going out of fashion, and start thinking of this as just another small piece of your sport jigsaw. By that time, you’ll have made a few more mistakes, which should have given you the opportunity to get the three Rs right.

In the wake of making a mistake, the first thing to do is recover composure and avoid falling into any of the emotional potholes. Easier said than done! Knowledge is the key here because if you understand what just happened, it’s a small step to take to get your brain busy talking about it. This will most effectively make you look where you are going, and even in a quite drastic situation you will find you can talk your way out of trouble.

This is perhaps the most difficult of the three phases. It’s difficult to duck the emotional clout of a mistake, even when you know it’s coming, be it disappointment, anger, embarrassment, excitement, or anxiety. The best way to do this is to develop a sense of history. This is the ability to categorically and comprehensively put the mistake into the past. It happened, it was a mistake, it had consequences. Stick with the past tense as you acknowledge that the mistake happened and take ownership of it. The moment you’ve done that, however, move on into action and from there never look over your shoulder. Save that for the debriefing. Always look forward to refocusing. Consign the mistake to history and leave it there, at least until the debriefing.

The ability to turn your back temporarily on a mistake in the middle of the action is a real skill. Instead of getting stuck in the consequences of it, or analyzing it to death, just get on with the job at hand. Use the mistake as a springboard for a bigger, better, higher, wider, faster, and generally more glorious effort. There will be time enough to tear it apart in the debriefing, or in front of your postperformance video. Now is not the time. Now is the time to look forward, start again, try differently, try harder. Anyway, you’re too busy to stop here. It’s time to refocus.

Refocusing is a little more demanding than recovering. You can’t take refuge in the technicalities of what’s happening to you; instead you must rally your resources to concentrate on your next task, whether it be your second serve or the next 50 meters of track. The more effectively you can wrap your attention around a single point, the more successfully you will reinstate your concentration. As with most other things, this takes practice.

Having steadied the ship in the recovery phase, you now set a new course. The challenge is to crowd out the distraction and concentrate on the process of your job. Here’s where you focus on the fundamentals of your technique, and give yourself extremely stern instructions to follow. Give yourself a job!

The other thing to do here is to give yourself time. Consider the way tennis players refocus before a second serve. They bounce that ball, twirl that racket, and take up that pose as often as they need to before they unleash another missile. Sometimes, to gain time, they summon a ball boy, squint at the sun, or wipe their wristband across their forehead. Whatever it takes.

During this time of refocusing, the more successfully you can bring your concentration back to your technique, the higher your chance will be of producing a good technical result that will effectively demolish your opponent. All you have ever learned about centering, breathing, tension control, positive self-talk, attentional focus, and mental rehearsal must be used now. The busier you are, the better. Remember that the technique will have to be different from what you’ve just done, unless you want the same result, that is, a repeat of the mistake. So be merciless with yourself in focusing on exactly what you are going to do and ruthlessly running through how you are going to do it.

If negative thoughts barge in, consign them to a garbage can, hurl them over a mental cliff, refuse to hear them, see them, or let them into your moment. Stay busy with this moment. Stay in what is happening now. That also means not letting your mind jump forward to what is about to happen. You are in the planning, not the action—yet. This is all about being grounded in the Now. The future must have no more interest or place in your thoughts than the past. You must become consumed by this dress rehearsal. You need to drive this mental process as surely as you will shortly drive the physical process. The more you have to think about, the less you will dwell on the mistake. It’s history. Live now. Step into the driver’s seat of your life.

When you know with unshakable certainty what has to be done, you have arrived at The Moment. You are calm, you are organized—you are ready to retry.

When you are ready, it’s the most natural thing in the world to move into the retrying phase. If you start too early, you will feel hassled and stressed. If you start too late, both your concentration and your confidence may desert you. Different mistakes have different recovery times, and you will need to give yourself that time depending on the kind of mistake you made and the circumstances in which you made it. There is no such thing as too little time, or too much; there is only your time. That is the time it takes you to get yourself organized and to choose when to unleash your next effort.

Viewing every retry as another opportunity to show your skill level, or even to practice at a submaximal level, will help you to muster the necessary confidence to try again. If you have the option of taking quite a different course of action, do so, because you will then be less likely to repeat your mistake. But that is not always an option. To take another swing on the uneven bars when you’ve just missed the last big one is a major task. That takes tons of courage and skill. If you find yourself trying too hard and feeling tense and tight, remind yourself of excellence and dismiss even the smallest thought of perfection.

But you really don’t have time to think about that. Now that it’s “all systems go!” your mind is too busy looking for the opportunity to show that you have refocused well to wonder whether you have the guts to see it through. Anyway, we’re talking championship material here, so of course you do! There’s only one thing to do, and that is: Commit yourself to the action. Anyway, once you’ve jumped on the end of the springboard, it’s too late not to dive so you might as well make it a good one. Better to decide that before you jumped at all.

Like any of your skills, the more you can practice this regime in training, the easier it will become to do it under the pressure of competition. At first you will make beginners’ mistakes by asking the wrong questions or taking forever to ask any questions at all. But you’ll quickly move on to becoming an intermediate learner and your mistakes management will become more effective, more efficient, and much more fun. As an advanced practitioner, all this will be consigned to automatic pilot and interruptions to your performance will be minimal as you smoothly use your mistakes as minitrampolines from which to bounce to better and better performances. It won’t take long before your mistakes will no longer be the unpredictable, destructive force they once were.

  • If you can stand the pace, here’s another freebie for the fridge: When you manage your mistakes, you manage your life.

And here’s something else that will pay good dividends if it’s managed well. Your learning. Maybe you thought your coach was in charge of that. After all, isn’t that her job? No. Her job is to teach you what you don’t know and show you how to do the rest a whole lot better. Unless she’s on some sort of power trip, the rest is up to you. So how about you take charge of it?

This is an excerpt from Mistakes Worth Making.

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