Some players sabotage their game even before it starts because of mental misses. Mental misses can happen to any player. Consistent players usually have high confidence levels and honestly believe that something good will happen in any given possession. Consistent performers are generally very proficient at blocking out distractions and focusing on each play. They also relentlessly practice their craft.
On the other hand, inconsistent players may not be physically or mentally committed to improving their total games. You may see this in how they put less effort into practice and assume they can “flick the switch” when it comes game time and still play brilliantly. Going through the motions in practice will only get players so far.
5 Causes Of Mental Misses
- Lack of confidence in abilities.
- Lack of trust in preparation and skills.
- Do not focus on the essential components of the skill, such as specific cues.
- Lack of commitment to training.
- Failure to play in the present and instead worries over the future (“what if I don’t get a hit”) or on a past play (“I can’t believe I dropped that pass”).
Players who “mentally miss” opportunities to improve or miss making plays in pressure moments can most likely point to one or more of these “mental miss” mental-skill attributes. In my experience as a 20-year certified mental performance consultant, I have seen seven different types of players, defined by their particular mental mistakes. Each is outlined below, including strategies athletes can use to combat these mental mistakes so you can be a more consistent, process-oriented player.
Strategies Athletes Can Use To Combat Mental Mistakes
The “Throw/Kick and Hope” Player
Due to a lack of confidence and performance anxiety, some players stop themselves from playing at the moment. Athletes stop enjoying what they are doing because they are worrying over their next touch of the ball. When this happens, players simply hope their kick, pass, or throw gets to its intended target instead of just playing and reacting to game situations.
The time to really think about technique and how best to execute is best done during practice. During matches and games, the player should be on automatic, where they simply play in the present and put to use what they have learned in practice. Changing a throw or a kick and hope player into a consistent playmaker requires old-fashioned hard work and focused repetition during practice. These players need to let go of their worrying about overplaying or playing and simply play during games! Missed kicks, bad passes, and turnovers (“I hope I don’t fumble this ball again”) are often the result of this type of worry some, thinking.
Through game simulation during practice, an athlete can visualize how they want to play. This allows them to get out of their own heads and simply play. They can embrace the challenges and opportunities that competition brings. Learn what you can in practice but come game time, have confidence in your abilities, give yourself credit for improvements made, and just play.
The “Do or Die” Player
Players should adopt a process approach based on learning and improving, rather than an outcome approach based solely on being the best and focused on winning. All that a player has control over really is how they prepare and how they play.
Whether their team wins or losses depends on many factors, many of them being out of their control. Players and teams who focus on improving over just winning will put less pressure on themselves to be the best and simply play. Process-oriented players also are better able to deal with adversity, like giving up the first goal or mistakes.
A “do or die” player is too focused on being the best on the field and winning. If they are not winning or showing how great they are, they are not happy, not motivated to give maximal effort, and become less of a team player. The longer the game continues like this, the more pressure they will put on themselves and their teammates to win the game. This increased pressure creates a lot of stress. This stress can translate into excess muscle tension or defeatist thinking, which are not advantageous to any player who needs fluid, relaxed execution. “Do or die” players need to learn how to focus more on the process of executing and simply playing. They need to realize that if each player puts in the effort and collectively works on the process of playing, the outcome will take care of itself.
The “Fader” Player
A player who tends to “fade” in critical times, also referred to as choking, is easily distracted by either internal or external distractions. Their focus may fade from the crowd noise or inclement weather (external distractions) to feelings of inadequacy or overthinking about past mistakes (internal distractions).
Since attentional capacity is limited, a player can only focus on a few cues. These cues should not be on the “uncontrollable” like the weather, bad officials calls, or past mistakes. The ideal is to focus only on the upcoming play, or what is called playing in the present. It is enough for a player to focus on just being in the moment. As stated previously, playing at the moment is one of the best ways to be process-focused, resulting in automated, free-flowing performance.
The “Flexed” Player
A player who is “flexed” is tight and tense due to their fear of missing plays, such as missing steals, allowing turnovers, getting beat by the dribble, or missing shots. Fear of making mistakes and failing can trigger the “flight or fight” response, which prepares the body for a threat. In doing so, the body reacts with increased heart rate, muscle tension, and clutter of distracting thoughts. This excessive tension could be felt especially in the chest, shoulders, and legs, causing shortness of breath and turning a usually smooth action into rigid, stiff motion. This stiffer motion disrupts fluid, rhythmic, technical, and physical forms. A change in technical form, often called pressing, can be reversed by learning how to relax these critical muscle groups via muscle-relaxation exercises, relaxation breathing, and mistake-management routines to enhance mental and physical readiness. However, a player who is aware of “pressing” is well on their way to changing their performance woes.
The “Hot and Cold” Player
A “hot and cold” player is simply streaky. When hot-handed, they will catch everything coming in their direction or just make plays. But if any part of their game is off, they carry it with them to the next down or play, resulting in “cold” spells. Truly competitive players can remain consistent in their play by being consistent “thinkers.” They do not allow swings in-game momentum or periods of good/poor play to cause them to change their approach, confidence, and readiness. To play consistently, a player should be consistent in their preparation. Athletes should practice before competing with pre-game routines, coping routines (used to help refocus after mistakes), positive imagery, and self-coaching affirmations.
The “Mechanical” Player
A “mechanical” player allows the athletes’ left brain to dominate their processing by focusing too much of their attention on the specific mechanics of the technique. The adage, “Paralysis by over-analysis,” applies here in that one cannot execute movements or actions if they are overthinking about them. The ideal is to let go of conscious control and just go for it! Having sound mental mechanics means staying focused on productive elements before execution, thus freeing the mind of distraction. Freeing the mind is so much better than freezing it due to overanalyzing. Doing so results in automatic execution—a point worth repeating.
The “Counter” Player
A “counter” is a player who distracts themselves by counting their missed plays, like missed catches, number of times beaten to the post, or missed sack chances. Focusing on one’s mistakes lowers confidence while increasing anxiety which is not a good combination for optimal play. To break the cycle of counting these miscues, players must begin to become a process rather than outcome-focused. Taking one play at a time and utilizing a consistent routine for coping with and moving past mistakes. Counting mistakes will only lead to more mistakes and missed plays. Mistakes are part of life and part of competing. Everyone makes them, but the more consistent performers learn from their mistakes and execute better because of them.
Portions of this article are adapted from Dr. V’s 2nd edition of Mental Toughness Training for Football (2020, Coaches Choice Publishing), and from his writings that have appeared in the United Soccer Coaches Association’s Soccer Journal.