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Everyone plays badly from time to time.
Some players love discussing their bad games, searching for comfort from teammates or parents. Others hide bad games, blaming outside forces for their struggles. Still others let a bad game pass by with little idea about what happened to cause the bad game.
While bad games stink, they're extraordinarily valuable as a learning tool when you take the time to evaluate them honestly. In the first part of this two-part series, we'll examine some of the do's and don'ts of reflecting on a bad performance.
DON'T: Blame yourself/Take it personally
One of the most common mistakes people make after any disappointing performance is self-blame. Why? Most young athletes, adult athletes or adults in general aren't coached on the difference between blaming yourself and blaming the game. Many athletes walk off the field after a bad performance with their chin down, isolated, repeating negative mantras like "I suck" or "I don't belong" or "I can't do it".
Playing a bad game doesn't actually make any of those statements true. Those statements, instead of focusing on the poor performance, judge the player themselves. They don't give any hope or room for growth. They paint over a player's full athlete career with the broad strokes of a difficult experience. We'd never say that Cristiano Ronaldo can't get it done because he missed a crucial penalty in 2008, or that Kawhi Leonard doesn't belong after a tough night from the field. You are not your worst performance.
DO: Blame that game
Not blaming yourself doesn't absolve you from a bad night. Something went wrong, and you are responsible, rather than your coaches, your parents, your teammates or your buddies, for uncovering the root of the poor performance.
What did you do differently than good games? Where was your head during the game? Who made your life difficult? Where were your weak points? Put the blame on the game itself. Be honest with yourself – you had a bad time on the court or the field. That's OK. You will have better games in the future, but only if you blame the game itself, rather than you personally.
DON'T: Focus on others
Some players have what some call an external locus of control. This means they believe that their outcomes in sports (and life) are due mostly to forces outside of their control.
Others have an internal locus of control, meaning (you guessed it) outcomes in sport/life are due mostly to forces within their control.
Players with an external locus tend to put their attention on forces they have no power over. They'll blame teammates, the weather, the playing surface, the refs, the coach, anyone but themselves.
Unfortunately, regardless of the impact these factors had on your game, blaming them won't help you get better. Deciding that the referees called the game poorly doesn't assist you in manipulating the officials better during the following game. Focus on things within your control.
Speaking of things within your control, consider the strategy you played with during your poor performance. What could have gone better and how could you have improved? Thinking specifically about the ways you could have played better will allow you to visualize success and improve your strategic approach to the following game. This is a great time to involve a coach in your post-game reflection, incidentally. If you felt you took the wrong angle on a play, ask what angle you should have taken.
Further, if your execution is more problematic than your strategy, your coach can provide an outside voice to allow you to understand your shortcomings and the route to improving them.
DON'T: Ruminate on your failures
When evaluating your own performance, it can be easy to obsess over mistakes.
It's a good thing to think about how you can play better, right? Correct, but if you're watching a play on an internal GIF while laying in bed, unable to sleep, you are filling yourself with negativity rather than setting yourself up to improve.
Think about your mistakes, process them, decide how to improve on them and bury them. If you are unable to move beyond a sport failure, you may find that working with a sport psychology professional is particularly useful for developing skills for retraining your brain to focus on the present or prepare for the future, rather than obsess on the past.
DO: Be vulnerable
"Be vulnerable" is likely the least appealing thing for an athlete to do, but hear me out.
In this case, being vulnerable means letting your guard down and taking an honest look at yourself. This is the best time to take a deep look inward and see clearly what works and what doesn't work for you. No one else needs to know the self-evaluation you're undergoing, though there is nothing shameful about being vulnerable.
Accepting that you need to improve at certain skills, or your communication with a teammate/coach isn't working, or even that you'll have to rework major parts of your game, can lead to wonderful progress, but requires vulnerability.
DON'T: Ignore your brain
This column wouldn't be complete without a nod to mental skills and a self-reflection on a poor performance can't be solely based on skills and physical performance.
Additionally, ignoring the internal experience of the game could disturb your ability to improve. If you make a mistake and fall into a negative thought spiral, your thoughts may be sabotaging your performance. Were you visualizing yourself making more mistakes? Were you telling yourself you'd screw up every play? Were you distracted by something else outside of the game?
Consider the mentality you played with and what you can do to improve it.
DO: Fact check
Are you sure the game was actually a bad game? What's the evidence that you played poorly? Did you make mistakes you don't normally make, or did you simply expect yourself to dominate the game?
Baseball players understand this conundrum well – going 1 for 3 in a game is perfectly acceptable. If you're going to blame yourself for having such a game, you might be treating an average game like a poor one. Having high expectations can be wonderful. Becoming upset, blaming yourself or blaming your teammates after an average game can stunt your growth as a player. Take an average game for what it is. Celebrate the positives, consider the negatives. Connor Hartley is a mental performance consultant from Tacoma, Washington. He teaches mental skills to athletes, musicians, students and other types of performers, including elite athletes in soccer, basketball and golf. Hartley has a master's degree in mental health counseling with a focus in sport psychology from Boston University and a bachelor's in psychology from Loyola Marymount University. Reach him on Facebook (Hartley Performance) Twitter (@connorhartleySP) or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.