Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Jan 1, 2000 – Dr. John F. Murray – Welcome to the year 2000! The future is now, and more athletes than ever are excited about taking their performance to new dimensions of efficiency and enjoyment. I hope the topics in this column help. But rather than unveiling a fancy new strategy, let’s get real and make a commitment to eliminate the typical result of most New Year’s resolutions, namely, excuses and justifications. This month we explore the nature of excuses in sport and how they affect performance, and offer solutions for any unresolved Y2K glitches in your game!

The Blame Game

How many times have you endured your opponent leaving the court offering multiple explanations for why they lost? How did this feel if you just finished playing your best match in months? Perhaps you have a habit of justifying your losses too? This all too common script involves many elements including weather, grips, shoes, injuries, lack of practice, poor fitness, court conditions, altitude, line calls, and luck. Competitors at all levels partake in the blame game. True champions, however, reject this option and seek even greater responsibility for their actions and outcomes (See Accepting Defeat Graciously).

Excuses & Justifications

Definitions for excuses and justifications abound. Athletes seek to deflect social disapproval and negative feelings surrounding poor outcomes by creating excuses. Excuses act as an explanation to help reduce uneasiness and shift some of the blame for a negative outcome to extenuating circumstances. This would be fine if it was adaptive to performance, but it clearly is not.

Excuses reduce apparent responsibility for negative outcomes, leaving the athlete with less perceived control over events. With extenuating circumstances in control, the athlete often sets lower goals (see the Art of Goal Setting) and gives reduced effort. With reduced responsibility for actions, practices become less meaningful and confidence is harder to acquire.

A close cousin to the excuse is the justification. In this case, athletes downplay the negative meaning of a poor performance and may even suggest that there are hidden benefits for performing poorly. For example, a football team may assume that “it can’t get any worse than it is” and forget to correct flaws from the previous game. A tennis player may justify that they lost because the other player had a much higher ranking, and reason that losing to higher ranked players is a good lesson. A more productive outlook would be for the football team to responsibly correct mistakes and the tennis player to realize that ranking is irrelevant.

Own Every Performance

There are few perfect weather days and many reasons indeed to explain performance. By taking full responsibility for your actions and the outcome of your actions, you set yourself up for success. Performance is yours to flash brilliantly or botch horrifically. Rather than looking for face saving explanations after a loss, redirect your energies to find a better solution the next time. Here are some tips to help you eliminate the ifs, ands and buts from your vocabulary:

1. Allow your opponent to offer all the excuses and justifications they can, but do not judge them for it. Bite your own lip following a tough loss, even if you know that you can perform 100 times better. By concealing your areas of weakness, you are acting smart and positioning yourself up for a much more valiant effort the next time.

2. Always credit the opponent for their performance after a loss. Allow them to bask in the temporary glory of their victory until you return with a renewed vigor to turn the tables. Offering excuses will just fuel their fire for the rematch.

3. Steer clear of offering too many explanations for match outcome. Your emotions are often high, and it’s wise to cool down, reflect on what happened, and quietly prepare an improved strategy for the next time.

By being fully responsible for your actions and outcomes, and eliminating excuses and justifications, you are taking the narrow path from which true improvement and growth emerges. You are in charge.