The Questions

What went wrong?

Is there something I can learn from what went wrong?

Can I redeem myself in the future?

How do I feel about what went wrong?

Is feeling this way useful or harmful?

Confidence is a lack of self-defeating thoughts

This article is really about self-criticism, not confidence. Your criticism can be a friend or an enemy. It is your enemy when it tells you “you’re not good enough”. Instead, you must tell yourself, “I am not good enough yet”.

Self-criticism is an automatic response to making a mistake or failing. You know that things didn’t go your way, so a thought arises in your head: why? Maybe there is an even an explanation… the kind of thought that tells you about your mistake, usually with too much emotion. Too often athletes allow these negative thoughts to hurt their game. Too often athletes don’t ask why.

Your negative thoughts start when you fail, but they can progress to places full of doubt and nervousness.

The occasional negative thought is okay (even helpful if you are trying to learn), but negative thought after negative thought has a serious effect on your confidence. Even Tom Brady admits that you are not “usually confident the first time you try something.” Mistakes are what help you get better. Getting better is the only way to gain real confidence.

So why get so down on yourself so early, when your journey in sports has to be a long one to be successful?

In the long term, criticizing yourself too much can completely change how you see yourself in your sport. That is why you must learn about the way that you speak to yourself. You must protect your growing confidence.

What does your inner-critic say?

You might know what it’s like to tell yourself you suck. The voice in your head often only tells you what you already know: “I should have shot there”, “I can’t get caught looking at strike 3”, or “I completely ruined that play”. So if you know what you did wrong, why did you do it wrong in the first place? Here’s one answer: something in your mindset was lacking.

Don’t let your critic fool you. It wasn’t just the ‘mistake’ that went wrong. It was your mindset that your failure says something bad about you. The way to change this process is quite simple. You can follow these steps:

  1. Try your best.
  2. Accept that things will go wrong.
  3. Be completely obsessed with the facts. Reflect and learn from the things that do go wrong.
  4. Return to step 1.

What stops athletes from following these simple steps? Emotion.

 Step 3 is where athletes either get too critical or emotional. There are two reasons:

  1. Recency bias: a bunch of bad plays in a row makes you more reactive to the next play. For example, three bad shifts in a row in hockey means you will probably be more upset if you make a mistake on the fourth shift.
  2. Catastrophizing: this is the tendency to make a big deal out of mistakes. For example, assuming this mistake will completely change the course of your season.

Instead of being caught up in emotions and thoughts that don’t help, think to yourself, “yes it went wrong, but why?” Why did you watch strike three? Why did you stickhandle once more before shooting? That way, the critic is forced to be quiet and wait for another voice to provide something useful: “You didn’t notice the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand,” for example.

Now your mistake will make you more confident in the long-run because you’ll get it right next time, instead of hurting your confidence.

Remind your critic who he works for

Reframe your self-criticism as a tool for you to learn lessons. If you let the critic talk for long enough, it will kill your confidence. The best way to avoid this confidence killing relationship is to become friends with your critic. Listen to it and ask good questions.

Your critic works for you. You can have the ultimate say in when the conversation happens. This skill requires you to fully stop your critic so that you can focus. There will be another play coming up. So you need to work to bringing yourself back into the mindset to make that play (often the best mindset is the one where you think the least) and learn from the mistake.

Silencing your critic is more difficult with bigger mistakes and pressure. But it is something that you can practice. In training and low-stakes situations, build the habit of noticing when your critic pipes up. You can then choose to refocus immediately or listen to the critics’ more useful comments.

AthleteDISC: Why is your critic so loud?

What happens if your critic is too overwhelming to ignore? Your critic might be very loud. You may sometimes have difficulty asking your critic to wait until things slow down to hear its comments.

Athletes who are high in Dominance (‘D’) and high in Conscientiousness (‘C’) might be susceptible to having their critic become loud because the mistakes you make directly hurt the result (‘D’) or seem like a reflection of your failure on a task (‘C’).  Athletes who are high in Influence (‘I’) or Steadiness (‘S’) might fear making mistakes that hurt your social standing (‘I’) or the team’s well-being (‘S’).

Every athlete has something that makes their critic especially ruthless. So ask, what is it that I am most afraid of? What irritates me the most? An AthleteDISC profile report offers suggestions based on your behavioral tendencies.  They are listed here based on the 4 behavioral styles (D, I, S, & C).





Not having complete control. Think about the kind of mistakes that you might not have control over. How do you react to these mistakes?

Inefficiency and indecision. Do you hate when you or others cannot act quickly? Do you struggle to see value in people who don’t have the answer right away?


Loss of social recognition or respect. Do you tend to worry about what other people will say when you make a mistake?

Routines and complexity. Do you hate when other people make the sport too rigid or difficult to understand?


Sudden changes and instability. Do you worry about people treating you differently if you are struggling?

Insensitivity and impatience. Do you hate when people are insensitive or impatient with you?


Personal criticism of your performance. Do you get caught being too hard on yourself?

Disorganization and informality. Do you hate when your play or your teammates’ play is sloppy?

Growing confidence

A good relationship with your critic is one where the negative thoughts allow you to grow your confidence and skills over time. You can still have negative thoughts about your play, your mindset, and your relationships with others, but you must make them useful to you.

You can be self-critical and confident at the same time… but this is a skill that takes mastering.


Written by Kyle Johnson
Kyle is a Founding Partner at My Mental Game. He is a professional hockey player in France and a Yale University graduate. His key areas of interest are behavior and psychology. Read more about Kyle.
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