Dealing with Mistakes in Sport

  • January 10th, 2019
  • Tom Bean

Tennis is a game of fine margins where small mistakes can have a big impact. With the Australian Open starting this weekend, the world's finest players will showcase their talent as they vie for the first grand slam title of the year. Yet, what's certain is mistakes will be in abundance at Melbourne Park.

With all their coaching and finely tuned techniques, why do these players at the very top of their sport still make unforced errors and how do they manage to overcome them?

Why we make mistakes?

Errors are a part of every sport. No matter how much training, practice and coaching you get, they still creep in - but why? To deal with them is firstly to understand why.

No idea of what to do

Recently, a coach said to me that in every situation, a player needs a plan A and plan B - when plan A doesn't work or is closed off, resort to the safer plan B. When you have a plan of what to do and an image of the situation around you, be it where your opponent is on the court or where your teammates are running on the pitch, the chances of executing the skill is high.

Regardless of which sport you play, without an idea of what you want to execute and how, your technique is likely to fall down. Mistakes will creep in with indecision and over-complication of situations.

The brain has to learn

In sport, the brain is constantly making calculations and processing information to make the body react. The brain has to learn how to digest the cues, therefore when faced with new ones, reacting to them comes from calling upon previous similar actions which may not exactly suit the specific situation.

Therefore mistakes come from a lack of previous knowledge in the brain to deal with a new situation. When the margins are so fine in sport, the slightest defect when calling upon previous experiences can cause a mistake.

You think you're better

As an athlete, you need a level of self-confidence to be able to attempt certain shots or passes. Without thinking you're better than you are, progress couldn't occur; however with this brings mistakes.

As you improve, you try new skills, you take on harder shots and narrow the margins for error. Whilst you are learning these new techniques, it's obvious that you will make mistakes as the brain must process new movements and can even forget the simpler skills that got you there in the first place.

By thinking you're better than you are, you also expect to be making these shots so put more pressure on yourself which can initiate mistakes. However once you crack it, the finer margins will soon become the norm and the cycle begins again hence why even players at the top continue to make mistakes.

How to deal with mistakes

Step 1 - Allow the mistake and understand it

Mistakes will happen. See them as temporary halts in your journey, just like how you pull up to a red light - it's not a terminal end to your journey, just an inevitable pause.

The first step of dealing with your mistakes is to initially understand why it happened. Was it because you hadn't got a clear image in your head of the situation first? Did you not have a plan of what to do? Had you never experienced the situation before? Did you forget the basic techniques to try and achieve something a little speculative?

Step 2 - Learn from the mistake

After recognising why you made the mistake, you must seek to rectify it. Go back to training and come up with ways to be more prepared so not to make the same error again.

Working closely with a coach is a great way to be able to express why you made it in the first place and how to improve. The coach can give a different perspective on how to overcome the defect where an individual may find it hard to recognise how to amend the issue.

Step 3 - Don't dwell on it

By recognising the mistake yet not dwelling on it trains the mind to focus on looking forward to the next bit of play.

Positive self-talk is a great way to overcome any psychological effects. Being in the position to be able to try new skills is a privilege in itself and illustrates ability. Keeping self-talk positive prevents falling into a negative rut, instead it keeps confidence high to perform future skills to the proper standard.

The old cliche is that people 'lose sleep at night over mistakes'. One tip is to keep a record of the good things you did in the game or at training before going to sleep. This will stimulate those images in the mind to create positive visualisations - something which is proven to improve self-efficacy and performance.

Under the Melbourne heat, in the pressure cooker that is the Australian Open, even the best in the world will make mistakes in the hunt for success. Throughout the world of sport, a trait of the very best is their effectiveness of dealing with them and recognising how to become better for them.

What the expect at AO19

First up, there will be a change to the final sets with tie-breakers introduced for the first time. Seemingly gone are the days of marathon final sets in the slams, something which will surely be welcomed in the 30+°C heat.

10-minute heat breaks for the men after the third set are also permitted this year.

Men's contenders

Novak Djokovic is favourite to pick up his third consecutive grand slam and surpass Roger Federer for Australian Open wins. However, reigning champion Federer is sure to put up a fight at Melbourne Park who is in the hunt for his 100th career singles title.

Nadal recently pulled out of the Brisbane Invitational with a thigh strain and is touch and go as to whether he will be at his best after a disrupted preparation leading up to the tournament. Andy Murray is on his way back from injury and Juan Martin del Potro is absent so it might be left to Alexander Zverev to make a charge for victory and challenge Federer and Djokovic.

The 21-year-old beat Djokovic in London at the ATP Tour Finals and has been there or thereabouts in recent slams. Is now his moment to topple the old guard?

Women's contenders

The women's draw is as open as ever with number one seed, Simona Halep, looking for her second grand slam victory after taking the French Open last year.

Angelique Kerber will be looking to follow on from a strong end to 2018 and add to her two Australian Open titles, as will current champion Caroline Wozniacki who is seeded third.

Of the contenders, perhaps the most exciting will be the youngster, Naomi Osaka, who so impressively won the US Open final amidst great controversy. However her foe that day, Serena Williams, will return to Melbourne looking to remedy her dramatic meltdown in her US Open final defeat. Could we see the two come up against each other again in 2019?