I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the goofy t-shirt that has common excuses tennis players use when they hit a bad shot. The shirt says things like: “the sun got in my eyes,” and “my strings were too tight.” You get the point. While the shirt is intended as a light joke, it speaks to a natural tendency that all of us have when we make a mistake. We immediately leap to the mitigating factors that led us astray. Top athletes, in particular, fall prey to this defense mechanism, often called denial, because they have honed their games to such an extent that they feel as though they are no longer prone to simple mistakes. This is why you so often see a player glance with a disbelieving look at his or her strings, racket, the ground or the air after a bad shot, trying to fathom the reason for their miscue. But instead of excusing away a bad shot, I encourage you to use a skill I will call ‘radical responsibility’, in which you avoid the easy balm of environmental fluke and instead take full, personal ownership for the mistake. Owning your errors is the quickest path to shoring them up, whereas excusing them away is the surest way to remain in the fiction-laden universe of denial and sour grapes. In this post, I will expand on this common pitfall and promote the skill of radical responsibility as a way toward improved performance.
Often, there are some other cognitive distortions lurking behind a defense mechanism and it’s important to know which one you might be using when you resort to excuses. I have written about them both previously, but the first is perfectionism. Many athletes understandably fall prey to perfectionism because they work so hard and are always striving for the perfect result. This kind of striving is a good thing. But it derails performance when the athlete thinks he or she has trained away all mistakes. But even the best players hit the ball into the net or chili-dip an easy chip shot. An excuse, then, masks the insult that the mistake has caused to the imagined perfection. But, often a mistake can be a good opportunity to notice a technical flaw or to realize that your attention has strayed from the task at hand. The second one is grandiosity, the idea that as we train and get better, we get beyond making certain mistakes, that somehow they are beneath us, that One so Great should never make an error so small. They say that great mathematicians are not good at simple calculations. But, that doesn’t make them immune to the laws of nature which addition, subtraction and division describe.
No. The real opportunities for learning from mistakes comes from taking radical responsibility for them. Instead of “I had a bad lie,” try, “I didn’t account for my lie.” Instead of “the wind really took that,” try, “I didn’t adequately judge the wind.” That is, radical responsibility demands that you bring your own agency into focus before considering the environmental factors. Doing so will give you more opportunities to know what you need to work on, and will give you a greater sense of ownership in the outcome. You take credit for your victories, so you should also put yourself forward as the author of your mistakes.I will leave you with two recent examples of how this sense of radical responsibility can play itself out even among the best players. After missing the cut at this year’s U.S. Open, 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson remarked, “I’d describe the whole course as manipulative. It just enhances my disdain for the USGA and how they manipulate courses.” Now contrast that remark with one that comes from the 1996 P.G.A. Champion, Mark Brooks. Many people might not have known that he was actually caddying for another tour player at this year’s Players Championship. When asked what his years of competitive experience were bringing to his man’s bag, he replied: “One thing I try to get him to do is to take responsibility for his shots, really do it, deep down. And the second thing is to work on his deficiencies.” Note that the two are connected: take radical responsibility for your mistakes, see them as windows to deeper technical flaws, and then use that feedback to reduce their frequency. Radical responsibility: put it in your bag and on your next t-shirt.
(For help with this or any other performance challenge, don't hesitate to contact Altius Performance Works at MattMunichPhD@gmail.com.)