The Coach's Curse - Mental Mistakes

"Donadoni rues Italian 'mistakes' against Dutch"

"Mental errors cost Demons in regional quarterfinal"

"Mental mistakes doom Rays in loss to Cardinals"


Every day, there is always a new variety of stories linked to the phrase, "mental mistakes".  Either the writer recaps a game, calling out the mistakes or a coach or player claims that mistakes were made. It has become sort of a throwaway phrase, "...we made a lot of mental mistakes out there today, that we need to avoid if we want to get to the playoffs..." The million dollar question then is HOW to reduce these mental mistakes. And, to answer that, we need to define WHAT is a mental mistake?

In a previous post, I introduced the "Sports Cognition Framework", which is a trio of elements needed for success in sports. These three elements are:

- decision-making ability (knowing what to do)

- motor skill competence (being physically able to do it)

- po
sitive mental state (being motivated and confident to do it)

Most of the time, a mental mistake is thought of as a breakdown of decision-making ability. The center fielder throws to the wrong base, the tight end runs the wrong route, or the defender forgets to mark his man, etc. These scenarios describe poor decisions or even memory lapses during the stress of the game. They are not necessarily the lack of skill to execute a play or the lack of confidence or motivation to want to do the right thing. It is a recognition, in hindsight, that the best option was not chosen. In addition to glaring nega
tive plays, there are also missed opportunities on the field (i.e. taking a contested shot on goal, instead of passing to the open teammate).

So, back to the payoff question: HOW do we reduce mental mistakes and poor decisions? Just as we practice physical skills to improve our ability to throw, catch, shoot, run, etc., we need to practice making decisions using a a training system that directly exposes the athlete to these scenarios. Dr. Joan Vickers, who we met during our discussion of the Quiet Eye, has created a new system which she calls the "Decision-Training Model", and is the focus of the second half of her book, "Perception, Cognition, and Decision Training". As opposed to traditional training methods that separate skill training from tactical decision making training, the Decision-Training model (D-T) forces the athlete to couple her skill learning with the appropriate tactical awareness of when to use it.

So, instead of an "easy-first" breakdown of a skill, and then build it up step by step, D-T begins with a "hard-first" approach putting the "technique within tactics" demanding a higher cognitive effort right up front. The theory behind D-T is that the coach is not on the field with the player during competition, so the player must learn to rely on their own blended combination of skill and game awareness. Research from Vickers and others shows that D-T provides a more lasting retention of knowledge, while more traditional bottom-up training with heavy coach feedback delivers a stronger short-term performance gain, but that success in practice does not often translate later in games. Practice and training need to mirror game situations as often and as completely as the real thing.

There are three major steps to Decision-Training (p. 167):

1. Identify a decision the athlete has to make in a game, using one of the seven cognitive skills (anticipation, attention, focus/concentration, pattern recognition, memory, problem solving and decision making)

2. Create a drill(s) that trains that decision using one of the seven cognitive triggers (object cues, location cues, Quiet Eye, reaction-time cues, memory cues, kinesthetic cues, self-coaching cues)

3. Use one or more of the seven decision tools in the design of the drill (variable practice, random practice, bandwidth feedback, questioning, video feedback, hard-first instruction, external focus of instruction)

This post was just to serve as an introduction to D-T. Dr. Vickers and her team at University of Calgary offer full courses for coaches to learn D-T and apply it in their sport. Combined with the visual cues of the playing environment provided by the Quiet Eye gaze control, D-T seems to offer a better tactical training option for coaches and athletes. Coming up, we will continue the discussion of decision-making in sports with a look at some other current research. Please give me your thoughts on D-T and the whole topic of mental mistakes!