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  • Writer's pictureShaylan Ahearn

Mental Toughness: Rebounding from Mistakes & Managing Emotions

Some of the best advice that I can give elite athletes is that you do not always have control over what happens, but you do have control over how you respond to what happens. Games are not won or lost off of a single play, but a combination of hundreds, so one mistake is not detrimental to you or your team’s success, but how you respond to that one mistake can be.

In the beginning of my college career, when I was fighting for a spot on the field, every mistake I made felt like I was getting further and further from a starting position. My negative mindset made me doubt my worth as a player and a teammate. This negativity did not only impact my self-beliefs, but my physical performance too. Whether in practice or in a game, I found myself clenching my stick a little tighter and overthinking plays that were normally instinctual. When I made a mistake I would return to playing in a state of fear and timidness, rather than being poised, aggressive, and excited for my next opportunity.

Unfortunately, this is how many athletes feel and respond after making a mistake, especially when they are in a new or unfamiliar situation (tryout, new team, or new position). Unfamiliarity leads to vulnerability and heightened sensitivity, so the negative emotions become all we can focus on. Our small mistakes start to feel huge, and the possible consequences of those mistakes become unmanageable. This is why building mental toughness skills are crucial for athletes.

Mental toughness is defined as, “an athlete’s disposition and ability to deal effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure in sports” (Gitonga et al.). Oftentimes when athletes hear “mental toughness” it is used as a catch-all phrase for everything we want to be as an athlete. We think it means being gritty, unreactive, calm, and holding ourselves at a standard above our competition. We may even see it as being strong enough to not feel pain and discomfort when challenges arise. In reality, mental toughness is all about becoming aware of and managing your emotions, both positive and negative, and staying resilient, goal-focused, and positive, through challenges and pressures of the game. During competition this might look like losing the ball and instead of engaging in negative self-talk or aggressive responses, we quickly acknowledge what happened, shift to a defensive mindset focused on getting the ball back, and staying present in the current play. In short, mental toughness is the ability to control your response to your emotions and take space to then refocus and perform with a clear head on the current play.

Rebounding from mistakes was a skill that I felt natural at in high school but struggled with a little in college. To gain that aspect of mental toughness back, I had to operationalize my actions and become intentional about my emotions and reactions. To do so, I learned a three-step method I use every day to help me rebound from my mistakes immediately after they happen. If you stay present, confident, and poised no matter what the other team is doing, what the refs are calling, and what mistakes you make, you will come to realize how powerful you are, this method has helped me do this.

So, what is this three-step method that helps me stay present, manage my emotions, and rebound from my mistake in the heat of the moment? Awareness. Calm. Rebound.

1. Awareness.

Become aware of when you are letting a mistake disrupt your flow. This first step is all about knowing yourself and your body. Having the awareness to know when you are worked up and impacted by a mistake is important for combating and rebounding from it. Identify what you did wrong and how it is making you feel so you can adjust, take ownership, and move on.

2. Calm yourself.

After identifying what you did and how you feel, learn how to calm yourself. Come up with a method you can use in the game to calm yourself down and move on from the mistake. This could be as simple as a deep breath, closing your eyes, or referencing a teammate or item. You can also come up with a phrase or action to promote moving on that you can think or look at during the game. Personally, I write a saying on my wrist that allows me to recenter, and reminds me move on to the next play. This piece of rebounding will look different from person to person.

3. Refocus.

Lastly, learn to refocus on the task at hand/ the next play. After making a mistake and calming yourself down, refocus and attack the rest of the game. Allow your mind to recenter itself and stay present. Know that the last play is over and what is most important is how you respond in the next play. Play with the “WIN” mentality focusing on “What’s Important Now”. Having a next play mentality will ensure that you are focused and centered during the entire game. That focus during each small play is what will lead to a positive outcome at the end of the game. Games are not won or lost through a single play rather a combination of plays. Do not let a single mistake take you out of an entire game. Instead, become aware, calm yourself, and refocus.

As athletes it is normal and expected that we make mistakes, if we didn’t, we would never grow from them. Having the mental toughness to be resilient, focused, and responsive in those challenging moments is what turns a good athlete to great. If you want help with building these mental toughness tools on and off the field, visit our “Meet the Team” page to contact one of our licensed mental skills clinicians and know you always have an entire group of athletes in your corner that believe in you.

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