Are You Making Any of the Top 3 Mental Mistakes?

No matter what age, sport or ability level the same common mental mistakes happen over and over again. These are the obstacles that athletes work on daily, so they can overcome these barriers to peak performance.

No matter what age, sport or ability level the same common mental mistakes happen over and over again. These are the obstacles that athletes work on daily, so they can overcome these barriers to peak performance.

Alternatively on the other side, with the highest performing athletes you rarely see them commit these mistakes and if they do, they quickly bounce back and recover. So how do you learn to avoid these mental mistakes and perform o your potential.


There are many examples of mistakes that athletes find hard to let go of, common ones include those which help an opponent to score, mistakes due to frustration or mental errors, your strongest shot or skill failing and errors at crucial moments.

It causes a negative cycle where you are stuck in the past and on what you did wrong. You use negative thinking, causing frustration and tension and leading to you making more and more mistakes. Many athletes cannot accept that they will make mistakes and they place more importance on mistakes than they need to.


The key is to be able to let go of the mistake before the next play or after a few seconds. The best way to do this is to focus on one play at a time or focus on the present.


A fast way to do this is to develop an action that you do to release the frustration. It is a sign to yourself that you are letting go of the mistake.

This can be a very powerful technique but it is important that you choose the right action for yourself which symbolises letting go. I have included some examples of actions I have helped athletes develop in the past that have been effective:

·       Pulling up grass and throwing it away

·       Picking up dirt, squeezing it and letting it go

·       Banging the racquet strings

·       Squeezing the handle of your equipment as hard as possible and releasing

·       Clenching your fist and letting go

Once you have done this action, you relax and refocus on the next play or point.


During competition it is easy to get caught up in the score or how much you want to win. This can be common especially during difficult situations such as when you are behind during a game or if you are trying to close out a match. Your focus may shift to the score such as “If I can just win this match I can win the set” or “If we can just stop them scoring then we will win.” What these thoughts do is put your focus on the future and things out of your control.

Because you have an opponent, the outcome of the match or competition is not completely in your control. If things stop going your way and you are losing, this focus can cause unnecessary frustration or nerves. By focusing on the future you have lost focus on what you need to do in the present in order to win and your performance level will go down.


In order to perform at your best you need to focus on the process. This means focusing on how to play well for example this could be specific technical points, your goals or your game plan. Don’t get ahead of yourself or lose perspective on the situation.


You need to develop focus points on how to play well. Think about when you are playing your best, what specific skills do you do well. These can be technical, physical or mental. They need to be specific and in your control. The example below includes 4 focus points a soccer player used for the same purpose. Use these when you recognise that you are distracted by the score to get you refocused on how to play well.

Soccer player focus points:

·       Keeping control of the ball

·       Making accurate passes

·       If I make a mistake bounce back in 2 seconds and work hard to get the ball back

·       Communicating with my teammates


Placing strict expectations on your performance can actually limit your success and doing this is often hard to avoid. For example during a warm-up you may watch your opponent and think you can beat them, this then creates expectations for your performance. These can limit success because it causes frustration or anxiety when you see that you are not meeting your expectations.

Unrealistic expectations set you up for failure before you even start.  For example a tennis player may expect to make all of her first serves in; once they fail to do this (which will happen as it is an unrealistic expectation) they begin to unravel becoming increasingly frustrated and their performance suffers.

Expectations are usually about results such as obtaining a specific score or achieving a personal statistic such as a batting average. Athletes often judge their game based on these expectations. In most cases, your expectations equal pressure and pressure can turn into anxiety.


You need to develop challenging but realistic expectations for your performance. This can be done by the use of SMART goals. Setting goals is a great way to measure your performance and you can also focus on these during competition.


You can develop SMART goals for each time you play. These should be process goals focused on how you want to play and not outcome goals that are focused on the score or statistics. Next time you compete, choose 3 process goals you want to achieve and decide how you will measure your progress. Instead of putting expectations on your performance, focus on achieving these goals.

Here are 3 goals a softball player used for one of her next games:

·       Keep my elbow up – 80% (of the time)

·       Focus on just my breathing and the ball when I’m at the plate – 75%

·       Focus on one pitch at a time by following by at-bat routine – 75%

She knew if she focused on these and achieved the 3 goals that she would have successful at-bats. Remember to evaluate your progress and how you can improve for next time. You should complete this exercise before and after every competition.

What to do if you make any of these mistakes?

There are many mental strategies and techniques you can learn. The first step is self awareness. Next time you compete take more notice of what you are thinking and focusing on.

Follow the tips and exercises provided to start developing more mental toughness and perform up to your potential during competition.

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