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The 'mistake ritual' can make sports gaffes go away

This World Cup has been so much fun to watch.

From the incredible individual play of Ronaldo and Neymar, the scoring of a Lukaku or Diego Costa, and the incredible goalkeeping of some of the world’s best club goalies playing for their respective national teams, the “beautiful game” has been on display in its full color and excitement.

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Not all of the play has been something to write home about, though, as in the poor sportsmanship of Messi and the Argentine coach, a missed penalty kick by the Icelandic player, more dives in a weekend than Greg Louganis did in his entire Olympic career, and the crucial mistakes of own goals and even arguably the world’s best goalkeeper, DeGea, that have significantly changed the outcome of some major games.

At the professional and major collegiate levels, where every play is replayed time and again on ESPN, everyone remembers the major blunders in sports history.

How about Jim Marshall of the Vikings picking up a fumble and rumbling, bumbling, and stumbling into the end zone — the wrong end zone?

Remember Michigan’s Chris Webber calling the famous timeout in the national championship game against North Carolina, only to find out that they had already used their final one?

And who can forget Bill Buckner’s fielding blooper in the World Series on Mookie Wilson’s dribbling grounder up the first-base line?

In comparison, the mistakes may seem much less significant at the high school and recreation level as there is no money or television coverage involved. But tell that to the player that is struggling with the embarrassment or the pressure associated with making a costly mistake at any level.

Watching young players go through the tryout process, nervous about every missed touch or errant pass, beating themselves up for their mistakes can be tough to handle some times. As the significance of every “touch” becomes more intense, these young men and women battle their mistake demons, pulling at their hair, kicking the ground, and jogging back to position with their heads down and shoulders slumped over.

The fear of making a mistake negatively impacts a player’s performance if either the player or the coach allows it to get the best of them. For many years, when one of my players would make a mistake like miss a scoring opportunity or dribble a ball out of bounds, my reaction would be to bury my face into my hands, not knowing the impact it had on the player when he looked to the sidelines and noticed his coach’s expression of disbelief.

The player would carry that mistake into the next few plays, nervously expecting to make another mistake with a similar reaction from me. I began to wonder if this was the kind of environment that I wanted to create to get the best performance from my players.

It is still a habit that I haven’t completely broken, but it certainly doesn’t help the player’s confidence when he looks to the sidelines and sees my reaction.

That’s when I learned about one of the most important coaching tools in my toolbox, the “mistake ritual.”

There are bright moments in my coaching career when I come up with ideas of my own that we apply and they actually work, but I’m certainly not above borrowing an idea from someone smarter or more creative than me when I know I’ve found a good one.

The concept of the “flush” ritual may have been started by the basketball coach at California’s Canada College, but many teams have successfully applied this technique. Basically, by making the motion of flushing a toilet, a player’s teammates or coaches can help by symbolizing that the mistake is over and it’s time to move on to the next play. As a coach of high school-aged boys, you can only imagine the fun we could have with this ritual.

Other rituals may include “brush it off” by making a wiping motion on your jersey or “shake it off” by shaking your arms and body. If it’s a mistake that you as a coach need to help your player mitigate in future situations, try packing the mistake away.

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Don’t forget about what caused the mistake, but you can unpack it in practice and review the cause without the pressure of the game situation.

Mistakes are going to happen at every level of sports, regardless of how much preparation you put your players through. As coaches, we need to help our players find ways to deal with the consequences of the mistakes they make, allowing them to learn in a more positive environment.

The great musician Johnny Cash, known for making a few mistakes in his lifetime, said, “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it.”

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