- By Ian Bradley
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I’ve spent a great deal of my professional life doing two things-helping executives become better bosses and helping professional hockey players to reach their potential. Their respective roads to success are lined with many similar qualities- hard work, grit, dealing with pressure, teamwork- to name only a few. However, in one area – reacting to mistakes – I think that many struggling players might do the opposite of what makes for a good boss.
A delete key and why it’s important:
Hockey of all the fast-paced sports demands total focus on the immediate. A player must see openings and possibilities for skating, passing or shooting. These options have to be generated, evaluated and decided upon in split-second speed.
This generation and weighing of alternatives relies upon a brain function – working memory- with an extremely limited capacity. Cognitive psychologists estimate that the capacity can be filled after even seven bits of information. Obviously, the more bits available, the easier and faster it is to perceive and process information.
What happens when some bits are already taken – taken with ideas such as “don’t fuck up again,” or “if I miss a pass I’ll probably be benched..” or any other number of option-inhibiting horror scenarios that many players either self-generate or hear from their coaches, sometimes with regularity.
That’s why every player needs a delete key to ensure an effective working memory.
What are we deleting:
Not every mistake should be immediately deleted. In fact, every mistake should be looked at, reviewed and analyzed. Why? To see if there is something there to learn.
However, each player should know that only some mistakes offer this earning “learning pay-off” and others don’t. These latter ones are just the natural consequence of the game or bad luck. If you’re a center-man, some face-offs are lost to opponents who are simply faster on the draw. Sometimes cycling maintains puck control, at other times, the puck hits the boards in a weird way and there’s a turnover.
This learning potential is the variable that determines whether the mistake is “deletable” or not. Can I learn from it, or not? Often, players use the wrong metric. A mistake comes important because it led to something realty bad – like a goal or a penalty. That outcome doesn’t necessarily make the mistake reviewable.
How to delete?
“You can’t” – that the bad news that I deliver to many players. The more you consciously try to forget the screw-up, the worse it gets – guaranteed. We have years of psychological research to back this up.
However, that delete key will function on its own, especially if you can “paint over the mistake” with more playing time and more games. I tell players with error-filled working memories to welcome the opportunity to bury those mistake by layering over more favourable experiences. Therefore, instead of being inhibited by fear, WANT that next shift, that next practice or the next game.
By the way, it really can be the next shift – it’s entirely arbitrary as to when an athlete can re-set. Some players mentally chunk time into games and think that they have to wait to the next game for a re-set. Not true, the “painting -over” can occur in the next period, or even, as I said, the next shift.
A Frozen Delete Key:
When I said that the delete key will function automatically on its own, that’s true, but often players screw up this process. Inadvertently, they freeze the delete key. They can freeze the key by any number of emotional, cognitive or behavioural missteps; here’s a partial list:
#1 Feeling ashamed
#2 Thinking that they let down the team
#3 Trying to pretend either to themselves to others, team members or coaches, that the mistake didn’t happen.
#5 Ruminating about it, especially at night before sleep.
All these things are guaranteed to freeze the delete key – its’ like storing your laptop on the balcony on a freezing Montreal winter’s night.
The cosmic irony
As an aside, it’s quite ironic that as a business coach I spend a considerable amount of time with bad bosses – executives who never take responsibility, never accept blame, never see the harm their own actions have on the organization. I try desperately to try to change their mindset and get them to see the situation from a non-egocentric perspective.
Well guess what? They might be bad bosses, but many would make great players – assuming they can skate. Their delete key is large and easily pushed. That’s the irony, what makes a good executive or perhaps a good person- the integrity to admit a mistake and feel its impact on others – is deadly on the ice, at least in the short run.
Be Like This Bad Boss
Be angry, not ashamed.
Think or yourself, not the team
Be public, not silent.
Be angry at the situation, bad luck, whatever. Show that anger- not in a way that’s out of character, but nonetheless, own it. Slam the gate, knock your stick against the boards, do something!
Become ego-centric. Focused on you and your career. Don’t worry about how other are viewing your mistake, it’s you who is going to hurt the most by your mistakes. You don’t want anything or anyone to throw you off the first line, or the power player or the team – wherever you are, defend it against that anyone who will use that mistake against you.
Be public not private. Don’t hide it from others, tell one of the coaches- someone you can trust – that you’re upset at what you did. Ask if they have any suggestions or input that might help you avoid that mistake going forward. Just ensure that you never communicate anything in an apologetic tone.
If you want to get good at this, then be really egregious by blaming your screw-up on other things such as lousy ice, bad bounces, shitty refs anything. In short, in this situation and this situation only, be that guy that you never want to be in real life.
There’s an important nuance here. Although I am advocating for a public shifting of the blame, privately, you still have to the engage in the “review and learn” process described in the first section of this article.
All of the above tips are things that you can do as immediate “first-aid” after the mistake has occurred.
But there is also prevention. Instead of focusing exclusively on the delete key, put better things into long-term memory. Get highlights of your good plays – your rushes, fast release shots, hard hits – make a tape or them and review them mentally on a regular basis. These permanent long-term memories will act as a buffer against any hits to your confidence
Developing and using the delete key is a skill – it takes practice. Work on it as you work on your power skating or shooting.