There are 3 parts to a mistake:
1) The mistake
2) The recognition of the mistake
3) The response to the mistake.
In this post, I want to dive deeper into part 3: our response to the mistake.
A really cool brain scan study showed that our mistake response happens in the .25 seconds after an error is made. When you make a mistake, you have 2 options. Your choice has significant consequences.
Option 1) You look deeply at the mistake
Option 2) You avoid analyzing the mistake
If you take option 1—and look deeply at the mistake—you’re far more likely to learn from it. In the brain scan study I referenced earlier, students took a test and then were re-tested later. Students who faced their mistake the first time around—in that magical .25 seconds—scored higher the second time around. This applies to basketball as well.
Imagine you’re playing 1 on 1. You blow by your defender and go to finish a simple layup off the backboard. But, to your surprise, the defender recovers and pins your shot against the glass.
You take option 1 and analyze your mistake. Why was he able to recover and block my shot? Maybe it was because he could read your footwork and was able to time his jump.
A few plays later you beat him to the rim and this time, you use a goofy foot layup to throw off the defender’s timing. Instead of pinning your layup against the glass, the ball is up and out of his reach before he has time to even leave the floor.
This process of mistake and correction is the essence of how we improve.
Imagine a baby learning to walk. He stands up, takes a shaky step and falls down. Then he gets back up and tries again, trying to correct the mistake. This process occurs over and over until he finally totters his way across the living room and into mom’s arms.
Taking option 1 allows you to make the essential correction. Without deeply looking at the mistake, it’s difficult to make a correction.
Additionally, choosing option 1 indicates you have a growth mindset. (Quick recap of the growth mindset which I wrote about here: Players with a growth mindset believe if they put in the effort, they can develop their ability and improve. Players with a fixed mindset believe that their basketball ability is static and determined largely by their genetics). Having a growth mindset has hugely positive outcomes in many aspects of basketball: how you view challenges, deal with obstacles, handle negative feedback, view others’ success, and how hard you work.
Why does mistake response indicate a growth mindset? Growth mindset players are focused on improving and learning so when they make an error, they lean into it, directing their attention at what caused the error. That focus on the error itself allows them to learn from the mistake and improve.
If you take option 2, and avoid analyzing the mistake, you’re far less likely to learn from it. In the brain scan study, option 2 students didn't improve nearly as much as those who took option 1.
If you’re playing 1 on 1 and get your shot blocked, but don’t try to figure out why it happened, it’s likely to happen again.
But why would anyone choose not to learn from their mistake? It’s not necessarily a conscious response. We avoid looking at our mistakes because it’s painful. Especially if we have a fixed mindset.
Players with a fixed mindset are worried about their performance relative to others. They feel like they have to prove themselves over and over again. As a result, once they make a mistake, they’re more likely to direct their attention toward self-critical rumination about their performance and their abilities.
In essence, they’re worried about looking stupid instead of learning from what just happened.
If you get your shot blocked and are worried about how foolish you look, or are busy telling yourself how crappy of a player you are, you’re losing the opportunity to analyze and learn from your mistake.
You can imagine the cumulative effect of having option 1 vs. option 2 as your default response.
We make hundreds of mistakes every time we train or play. Each one of those mistakes is either a lesson to learn from or ignored. Over the course of a week, offseason, year, or 5 years, the player who defaults to option 1 will quickly separate himself from the player who defaults to option 2.
And it all happens in that tiny .25 second window.
So how do we train ourselves to default to option 1?
1) Depersonalize mistakes. Your performance should not impact your self-worth. One trick is to visualize mistakes as guideposts. Because that’s all they really are. They tell you where to go, but don’t imply anything about you.
2) Expect difficulties. It’s uncomfortable to look our mistakes in the face. So we often avoid that discomfort by averting our eyes.
Additionally, it takes extra effort to examine them. Cognitively, focusing our attention on what just went wrong is more tiring than glazing over it. For these reasons, don’t expect an easy, instantaneous switch to an option 1 mistake response.
3) Ask yourself: What did I learn from that? This can be internal self-talk when you feel yourself being overly self-critical about a mistake. Or, it can be a post-practice journaling routine where you list a few mistakes you made and then write down what you learned from those mistakes.
There's so much potential for growth in those .25 seconds. Take advantage of it by having the courage to look your mistakes in the face.