The Positive Response to Mistakes

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness

rosenblattIn the 2008 College Baseball World Series, Fresno State University lost Game 1 in the best of three series against Georgia, but bounced back to win the next two games. In game three, Fresno State’s shortstop, freshman Danny Muno, made three errors. The third error came in the eighth inning and gave Georgia life.

After the error, Justin Wilson, Fresno’s starting pitcher, looked at Muno, smiled and good naturedly said, “Come on!” with a little laugh. Muno smiled, a little embarrassed, and hit his glove as if to say, “Let’s go!” In the ninth inning, Muno started a 6-4-3 double play that more or less ended the game.

I watched every inning of the championship series, but that third error, and Wilson’s response, is the scene I remember. In a tense situation, he laughed off his teammate’s mistake and re-focused on the next batter. Muno, for his part, regrouped from his mistakes and moved forward.

santa barbaraLast summer, I worked a basketball camp in Morocco. The camp was at an American School, and the kids were from several different countries. This was not a competitive camp or an evaluation camp. None of the players had college or professional aspirations, and their school only played a handful of games during its season. Some players were good and some were bad, but the campers were mainly there for the experience, not because of their basketball devotion.

When we played games, I worked with the 12-14-year-olds. Invariably, at least one player would show his displeasure with a teammate, either through body language or verbally. When we reached the play-offs, a couple of the not very good players tried to fake injuries so they could sit out and help their team by not playing. Even at a camp where almost all the players attended the same school and hung out socially, players could not help but react to mistakes in the heat of competition.

After watching these children in a totally uncompetitive environment act in this manner, Wilson’s and Muno’s composure in a tension-filled championship game seemed even more remarkable.

The campers acted normally for their age. Unfortunately, children mimic the actions of their coaches and parents, who react negatively to mistakes, even with young players. We get caught up in the action and the competition and show our frustration. We forget that the players are young, and that mistakes are normal.

When other players, parents or coaches criticize mistakes and/or enact some form of punishment – run a lap if you miss a free throw or a ground ball – kids fear mistakes.

During one Little League season when I was 10 or 11-years-old, my throws were off. I played second base and threw away the ball on a couple easy grounders even though our first baseman was over six-feet tall. I started to position myself out of position intentionally to eliminate an easy chance and relieve myself of the pressure. If I made a diving stop on a ball hit up the middle, but was unable to make a perfect throw, it was okay because nobody expected a perfect throw after a great stop. I intentionally made the game harder to save the embarrassment of making a mistake on an easy play. I feared the criticism from the other players or my coach, so I found a way to eliminate the pressure.

When kids fear mistakes, they do not develop. Mistakes are a part of the development process. However, when a coach, parent or player reacts to the mistake, the player avoids situations where he might make a mistake. By avoiding the situations, he also avoids the opportunity to improve.

In Little League, I never wanted to make an out. I discovered that most pitchers lacked good control, so I took a lot of pitches. I led the league in walks and on-base percentage and was known for having a great eye at the plate and not swinging at bad pitches. But, I also rarely swung at good pitches. I handicapped my development by concentrating solely on the easiest way to get on base and never really developed as a hitter. While I developed a great glove (since I intentionally played out of position, I learned to make the tough plays), I never developed as a hitter.

Why would children voluntarily fake an injury to avoid playing or intentionally play out of position to avoid the easy play? Because somewhere during their playing career they had an unpleasant experience and that experience resonates.

In Zen Golf, Dr. Joseph Parent writes:

“Emotional experiences register more strongly in memory than ordinary experiences. They get a special ‘tag’ because of the emotional charge associated with them. We’re hardwired that way, a survival mechanism inherited from prehistoric times.”

When I think about my Little League career, I remember one at-bat. In 7th grade, my team won our league and played in the Tournament of Champions. We went undefeated and reached the championship game, where the other team had to beat us twice. I struck out to end the first game. Luckily, we won the second game and the TOC. I know I hit over .350 that season, but I do not remember a single hit.

As Dr. Parent writes:

“When we make a four-foot putt, there may be some relief but not usually a lot of emotion. However, when we miss a four-foot putt, there is often a reaction of frustration or anger. That emotional reaction imprints more strongly in our memory.”

To help young athletes improve and enjoy their athletic experience more, we need to improve our body language as coaches and parents when a mistake is made, and also monitor the body language and expressions of teammates. Coaches need to embrace mistakes as learning experiences, not opportunities for criticism, and parents and coaches need to focus more on the positive plays, rather than the negative ones.

If a young player remembers the positive plays more than the negative ones, he enjoys the experience more and develops his skills more thoroughly, as he is less afraid to make a mistake and more willing to make the attempt, whether it is shooting the basketball or hitting a baseball.

The best reaction is to laugh off the mistake and prepare for the next play, just like Fresno State’s Wilson and Muno. If they can manage this reaction in the eighth inning of a National Championship game, everyone should be able to remain more positive during a youth game or recreational match.

By Brian McCormick
Creator, 180 Shooter

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