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5 Mistakes Athletes Make With Their Mentality

It has become clear that adopting a positive mental attitude can help give you an edge in sporting development and performance. It is one of the answers as to why some less physically and technically talented athletes become more successful than their “more gifted” peers.

Here are 5 mistakes that athletes make with their mentality, with tips on how these can be addressed to develop a more positive mindset and help growth and development….

1) Not understanding the importance and value of mistakes

From a young age, we are taught that mistakes are bad and to be avoided. Whether that's an incorrect spelling in a spelling test or a wrong gear change on a driving lesson. This avoidance of mistakes makes sense in most aspects of life. However, in sport, this can be a dangerous mentality to adopt, Why? Simply put, mistakes will always happen in sport. It is full of uncontrollable factors; high pressure; and the need for instant thinking and decision-making.

Seeing mistakes as negative can be dangerous for two reasons; firstly, it can limit your ability to learn and develop your game. Understand and accept that misplacing a pass or missing an opportunity to score is part and parcel of sport and view them as learning opportunities. Let these mistakes take you forward as an athlete rather than hold you back. The beauty of sport is that you will always be presented with another opportunity.

Secondly, viewing mistakes as negative can lead to the development of a “fear of failure” mentality. This can prevent you from taking risks and will hold you back from reaching your true potential. The best athletes in the world will push themselves out of their comfort zone and take risks, even if those risks could lead to failure. However, for an athlete with this fear of failure mentality, the anxiety of making a mistake in front of their coach or fans is so strong, they prefer to stay in their comfort zone and take as few risks as possible.

TIP: Adopt a mindset of acceptance that mistakes will happen. Treat them as learning opportunities to develop your game and continue to take risks to become the best athlete you can be.

2) Not bouncing back quickly

Linked closely to mistake 1, if you don’t bounce back quickly from a bad performance or a mistake in a game, you are likely to further add to this with more mistakes or more bad performances. If you let difficult situations affect you and let them dwell in your mind, you will put yourself in a negative mindset and increase the chances of you making more errors (Metcalfe, 2017). In the middle of a training session or match, you need to be focused and concentrated on what is happening in the here and now, not focusing on a mistake from 5 minutes earlier.

TIP: Don't overthink and beat yourself up over a mistake. There is plenty of time after a performance to analyse and learn from any mistakes made.

3) Not being aware of your thoughts

It is important to become conscious of your own thought processes, so you can be aware of any negative thoughts that could be hindering your development and performance. This can also be closely linked to your self-confidence and belief. Confidence is one of the most powerful skills available and a skill that can be developed and improved with the right work. However, it is also fragile and can be destroyed very quickly with the wrong attitude or thought processes.

One method to understand your thought processes more clearly is to watch one of your previous performances. Get a piece of paper and make two columns - one for positive thoughts and one for negative thoughts. Write down every thought that comes into your head about your performance. In the end, you want the positive column to have a significantly higher number than the negative column. If this is the opposite, you can see you are struggling with too many negative thoughts, which could directly impact on your self-confidence going into performances.

TIP: If you find you suffer from an influx of negative thoughts, use strategies such as positive self-talk, visualisation and cognitive restructuring to address this. If practiced and used correctly, this should begin to change these thought processes and positively influence your self-confidence and performance.

4) Setting low goals and targets

A lot of athletes start a season or go into a match setting low goals and expectations – mainly because they see them as easily achievable targets. This can be one of the biggest barriers preventing progression and reaching your true potential.

Setting conservative goals might be good for short-term confidence, but what happens when you hit that target? For example, you aim for 10 goals a season and hit that halfway through the season. It is easy for your motivation and hard work to become affected and naturally decrease because you have hit this target. It is often talked about in the football media that when a team hits the 40 points seen as being needed to avoid relegation, their results and performances tail off because players have hit this target and are “already on the beach enjoying their holiday”.

When you set higher more challenging goals, you look for more ways to achieve that goal. Whether that is working more on your technical skills, learning a new attribute to better your performance or improving your fitness to become stronger and fitter… the idea of setting challenging but achievable goals is to use them to motivate you to improve your game.

TIP: Aim high - set challenging (but not unrealistic) goals. Goals that will make you work hard every day in training; that will make you go into match day knowing you need a strong performance. This mindset is used by the very best athletes and coaches in the world and is an easy way to develop your game.

5) Having a fixed mindset

Athletes with a fixed mindset believe they are born with a certain amount of talent or skill, and these cannot be improved. For example, I once worked with a footballer who was the fastest player in his team. He believed he was quick because his father was a sprinter, and it was in his “genes”. However, he often struggled to finish matches because his stamina and endurance were poor. He didn’t work on any endurance training, because he believed he was “born to be fast”. This is an example of an extremely fixed mindset and one that would significantly prevent his development. Athletes with this fixed mindset often avoid challenges and are more likely to give up easily when faced with adversity, which can often be the difference between success and failure.

Instead, it is important to possess a growth mindset (Dweck, 2007). Athletes that possess this mindset believe that through hard work and persistence, skills can be improved. When presented with challenges, athletes with a growth mindset rise to the challenge and constantly strive to develop their game. In reference to some of the earlier points, a growth mindset can prevent fear of failure, viewing mistakes as opportunities to improve and develop.

TIP: Examples of strategies you could use to develop a growth mindset…

- Reflection = Becoming aware of your areas for improvement… DON’T ignore your weaknesses; - Take on Challenges = Embrace challenges as learning opportunities and do not fear mistakes; - Use language such as “have” and “will” = Positive language when faced with challenges can encourage a mindset based upon overcoming difficulties; - Seek constructive feedback to help learn from mistakes and focus your time on skills that can aid improvement.


Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Metcalfe, J. (2017). Learning From Errors. Annual Review of Psychology, 68(1), 465-489.


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