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Beating the Odds

The Role of Mistakes

Imagine a sports landscape in which there were no mistakes.

Dave Johnson has done so, and what he sees isn’t pretty. The rallies go on forever, the score is endlessly tied, and there is no game. No sport. No thrill.

Johnson, president-elect of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association, has written a thoughtful piece on the role of mistakes both in and out of sports.

“Life is often a series of mistakes or disappointments,” writes Johnson, of Marshall School in Duluth, Minn.  “What determines who we are is not so much what happens to us, but rather what is our reaction to the things that life brings our way?  Do we yell or do we brush it off and make the best of each situation?”

Johnson makes a powerful point when he says mistakes determine who we are. Or more precisely, how we relate to mistakes determines who we are.

Forty years ago, Richie Havens became a sensation with the way he played at Woodstock. He appeared first because another performer was too afraid to go on. Then, because of technical difficulties, Havens had to keep playing. When his repertoire was used up, he improvised a song he called “Freedom.” People loved it!

If Havens had been worried about making mistakes, he never could have succeeded. If he had thought about the vastness of his audience, he could have become paralyzed with fear. Instead, his mind was on PLAYING.

Later this month, the best tennis players in the world will converge on Flushing Meadow, N.Y., for the U.S. Open. No one knows who will win, but here’s who absolutely can’t win: anyone who tries to be cautious. You can’t win at high-level tennis without going for winners. If you’re afraid to take risks, you are doomed to fail.

Tiger Woods, the halfway leader in the PGA Tournament, responds to mistakes better than anyone else in the world.

Coach Johnson challenges his colleagues to help athletes develop a constructive way of dealing with mistakes.

“I know of a coach who developed a hand signal for his team that they would use after making a mistake,” Johnson writes. “It was a simple brushing off of the shoulder with a hand.  That simple motion showed that mistakes happen and the best reaction is to brush it off.  Take ownership for the mistake and then clear it off the body.”

Make no mistake, Coach Johnson is right on.


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