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Posted at 04:32 PM ET, 11/22/2011

Dealing with frustration: Fine-tuning your “mistake response”


This weekend I had the privilege to check out the Maryland 4A volleyball championship, which was played at the University of Maryland. The game was outstanding; Sherwood and Arundel both deserved to be there. The match was incredibly hard-fought, and Sherwood successfully defended its title.

It’s been a while since I was a high school athlete, so I spent much of the match observing the two teams. The game inspired me to write about dealing with frustration — it’s something that all athletes, no matter the level of competition, experience. But the most successful athletes know how to handle it and keep it in perspective.
Sherwood defeated Arundel in straight sets to win the Maryland 4A volleyball title. (Toni L. Sandys - WASHINGTON POST)

I thought the Wildcats became visibly frustrated in the third set, even though they were still very much in the match. Overcoming frustration is part of being an athlete. Having completed my college career — which included a few comebacks in that time — I kept thinking, “you can’t let ’em see you sweat; there is a better way to handle what you’re feeling.”

Emotions are real, especially as an athlete, but you cannot let them get the best of you. Of course you will get frustrated — you have invested so much — and of course you will make mistakes, you are human.

“Expect the unexpected, anticipate there are going to be times in a game that [you] are going to be frustrated and make mistakes, but forgive, let it go, and refocus. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a deep breath to refocus for the next play,” said Dr. Wayne Hurr, who is a staff psychologist and sports psychology consultant at Georgetown University Counseling Center.

Dr. Hurr was a staple of preseason training during my time at Georgetown, and I’ve personally employed some of the techniques he recommends. He has worked with professionals and Olympic athletes in Atlanta, Sydney and Beijing as a member of the U.S. Olympic Sports Psychology Registry.

He suggests the use of cue words and visualization techniques to help athletes perform at their peaks and refocus after mistakes.

“Cue words or trigger words like ‘strong, powerful, confident,’ trigger the brain to perform,” Dr. Hurr said. “Some athletes even write a word on their uniform or put it in the palm of their hand.”

One of my assistant coaches at Georgetown, Keith Brown, coined the term “mistake response.” Developing a consistent “mistake response” can help you become more consistent as an athlete, just like working on your favorite move can make you a more consistent player. Take a deep breath and remember your cue word. In order to perform, you cannot dwell on your mistakes; it will cost you if you do.

“Where the mind goes, the body follows,” warns Dr. Hurr. “Research shows that positive self talk enhances self-confidence and increases performance. Negative talk and anxiety has adverse effects on performance.”

College athletics are far more mentally taxing than any high school athlete realizes. If you begin to develop productive mental responses now, you will be ahead when you get to college. One of the best tips I picked up from Dr. Hurr was about visualization.

 “In order to do something successfully, we must first be able to visualize doing it in our own mind,” he says. “Research shows that when we visualize an event or activity, the neurons in our brain fire in the exact same pattern as when we are performing the activity.”

So don’t think, “if these mistakes continue” during the course of your game; think “that’s the last one.” See yourself succeeding in your mind’s eye, and then see it through in reality.

Monica McNutt was an All-Met basketball player at Holy Cross Academy who went on to star for the Georgetown women’s team. She will be offering advice to high school athletes who are looking to make the leap to college sports.

Got a question for Monica, or an idea she can use for a future post? Leave it here in the comments, or email her at hss@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter at @__MCM__.

Previously:

Looking beyond the stat sheet (Nov. 15, 2011)

Battling the “dumb jock” stereotype (Nov. 8, 2011)

Taking advantage of your athletic resume (Nov. 1, 2011)

College recruiting: Finding a program that fits you (Oct. 25, 2011)

Navigating the recruiting process: “Get a clue, control your career” (Oct. 18, 2011)

Secrets to success: Food and rest (Oct. 11, 2011)

Introducing “Transition Game” (Oct. 4, 2011)

By Monica McNutt  |  04:32 PM ET, 11/22/2011

 
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