First, let’s define a composed athlete.  A composed athlete is what is often referred to as a “gamer”.  The players who tend to thrive under pressure and step up in big games; the football players who want to make the game-winning play, the great basketball players who are pushing to get the ball in their hands with 10 seconds left on the clock; the golfer who is dying for the chance to sink the winning putt on the last hole, and the gymnast who relishes the chance to nail the final routine that wins or loses the event.

One of the key components of composure is the ability to let go of mistakes.  The best athletes may get upset when they make a mistake, but don’t dwell on them.  They hone their ability to note the mistake, take just a moment to learn from it, and then let it go.  Learn it and burn it so to speak.  Composure is the art of letting go of mistakes and not allowing them to snowball into full on frustration and derailing your whole performance.

Some people think that athletes are either born with composure or not. But the truth is, you can learn perspectives and strategies that help build confidence and composure.  Additionally, once an athlete begins to display composure and poise, often others on the team will follow them and have confidence in looking to that player as a leader.

A great quote to keep in mind when building composure comes from sports psychology expert and author of “Heads Up Baseball”, Dr. Ken Ravizza, “You must first be in control of yourself before you can control your performance.” 

Composed athletes have the following characteristics:

  • Remain calm and rational in competitive pressure situations
  • React calmly when they make mistakes in competition
  • Rise to the challenge with confidence when necessary
  • Overcome mental barriers that undermine their ability to stay poised
  • Believe there is no better person to win the game – Relish opportunities to be the clutch performer

According to Dr. Patrick J. Cohn, in order to stay composed, athletes first need to do a check of “mental game” situations that undermine poised performances.  Some common offenders are:

  • Being a perfectionist who gets super upset when you make mistakes
  • Holding certain unhealthy ideas about your performance. Such as “we always lose to the team with two big guys”.
  • Trying hard to show others you’re better than them
  • Worrying too much about what others think of you (or your performance)
  • Being afraid to fail
  • Becoming easily frustrated and dwelling on mistakes

Acknowledging erroneous thinking patterns is the first step in gaining composure. Then the following strategies can begin to replace those unhealthy thinking patterns:

Manage Expectations

Throw away the expectations you identified as causing you to feel frustration and robbed of your concentration.  Then break them down into smaller components.  For example, turn “I can’t make any mistakes if I want to win” to “my mini-goal is to make four quality shots on goal today.”

Change the Way You Think About Mistakes

The great psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis would say that frustration comes from how we perceive mistakes, not the mistake itself.  In other words, the beliefs you hold about the mistake (such as, “Only losers miss the open net!”) bring on the frustration.  It’s vital that athletes learn how to accept mistakes and regroup in a positive way. The way to do that is to acknowledge what happened (“I double faulted my serve), what the wrong thinking looks like (“Don’t double fault again!”), and what’s a more positive reaction? (“My serve is my strength.  Just focus on my target and I’ll win points”)

Stop Dwelling on the Mistake and Put it in the Past.  Refocus on the Next Play

Adopt an “accepting mindset”.  What I mean is, try to make mistakes okay in your mind.  Not to say that mistakes are okay, but you must accept them anyway you can so you can let go and move on with a ready mind to make the next play.  A good mantra is “Mistakes are part of the game.  I’m ready now.”

Don’t Analyze and Then Try to Avoid Mistakes

The best way to beat yourself at the composure challenge is to feel as if you need to avoid making mistakes.  You’ll then be thinking too much about avoiding and start performing too cautiously.  You’ll play scared and “not to lose”.  Set positive goals like “make quality passes” instead of “Don’t make bad passes.  Don’t let them steal.”

Learn from Your Mistakes

Work hard at figuring out a way to accept mistakes.  If you can accept them and learn from them, your game starts to improve.  Instead of performing tentatively and losing trust in your swing after a strikeout, try to learn from the mistake and think about what needs to improve.  Consider the process goals such as relaxing more in the batter’s box or seeing the ball sooner after the pitcher releases it.  Remember, growth is always in the process, not in focus on the outcome.

Anticipate Mishaps and Develop Strategies

Most athletes can usually guess what mistakes they’re likely to make and which ones will cause the most frustration and upset.  Prepare yourself to stay calm and poised in this scenario.  Create a plan before game time to react appropriately in those moments instead of letting the game happen and surrendering to frustration in the clutch.

Give Yourself the Luxury of Making Mistakes

Perfectionists cannot accept mistakes.  Those high expectations rob athletes of their breathing room. All athletes make mistakes.  It’s okay if you do too.  You’ll be more composed and better prepared for the next challenge if you can let go of perfection and keep your focus on the process of the skill.

In short, arm yourself with the mental game that allows you to cope with adversity and prevent negative feelings from snowballing out of control.