In an email from a parent recently, a concerned mother wrote:
Coach, when my 14-year-old son comes home from practice and the only one criticizing him is himself, it is frustrating. As a goalie, he is pretty vocal on the field, except for when he makes mistakes. The angrier he gets at himself, the worse he plays. Is there a technique to somehow curb that anger and frustration so it doesn't mess him up, or does that start to become a maturity thing?
I wish it were easy to diagnose where that behavior comes from because then we could start there. It’s important that he recognizes the criticizing not only hurts his performance, but it affects the team as well. Yes, he could grow out of it, but you and I both know adults who do the very same thing.
I’ve dealt with athletes who are their own worst enemy, and only when they see it is hurting them will they attempt to change. You and I can want it for him all day, but in the end, he must decide if beating himself up with words and negative thoughts is worth the effort.
Ask him (when he is not in a negative spiral) how the behavior serves him. Be aware of your tone and try your best not to sound judgmental. Take a curious approach, and understand that it might take a few loving attempts to understand before he sees that you are not judging him, but that you are honestly trying to understand him.
Mistake Recovery Routine
Have him come up with mistake recovery routine. This idea was popularized by a baseball coach at Fullerton university who put a toilet in the dugout. Players who made a mistake were to bring their mistake to the toilet, flush it, then they could move on. It was ridiculous, and it worked. It worked precisely because it was ridiculous! It broke the pattern of negativity in the athlete's mind before they could spiral out of control and be lost for the day.
Since learning of this, I have worked with athletes who have made their own recovery antics. One guy would open a fake door, drop kick the mistake, then slam the door. I have a gamer who, after a disappointing performance, will close his eyes while simultaneously flipping down an imaginary light switch, take a deep breath, then flip up the switch when he opens his eyes. Others can be seen doing things a little less obvious, like brushing off their shoulders or wadding up the mistake in their hands, chewing it, and spitting it out. As long as the physical motion can be silly enough to break the negative pattern, but not so distracting that it takes away from gameplay, it is a tool that many athletes use to distract themselves from getting in a word-fight with the bully in their head.
I hope this helps, and if he comes up with great mistake recovery routine, I want to hear about it!