Want the secret to avoiding negative “self talk” after mistakes or poor performance?

Updated: September 18, 2020

Photo: This is a Chinese Finger Trap.

Note: The following column appeared in WIN Magazine’s September issue. Click here to subscribe to WIN in time to receive WIN’s October issue, which will be our 2020-21 College/High School Preview Issue.

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By John Klessinger

Last evening my son walked towards my car after the finish of lacrosse practice. I could tell by the look on his face that he wasn’t happy. He’s 13 years old and it was not a unique look by a 13-year-old after finishing practice in the 101 degrees Maryland heat.

In those moments, I try to make light of the situation. I offer a smile or overly chipper, “How’d it go.” His mannerisms were not typical of other days when I picked him up when he was tired or disappointed in his play. He looked confused and helpless. It was evident he needed to get it off his chest. I told him to wait and let me pull out of the parking lot, and then we can talk.

I listened intently for a few minutes as he unloaded about what was on his mind. He was upset and emotional. He spoke of the amount of pressure he puts on himself to perform. His frustration has stemmed from — in his eyes — his lack of progress. Again, he is 13 growing up in the 21st century. Every kid today wants things quick. They work for a week or two and expect to meet all their goals. My son is a product of modern society. He wants everything fast and instant.

As we spoke more, I understood what was going on in his head. He was experiencing in the sports world what is called “pressing.” He was trying too hard. If you ever heard of the Chinese Finger Trap, you can visualize the psychological paradox of pressing.

John Klessinger

A Chinese finger trap is a toy where a person puts both index fingers in a cylinder (see picture). The cylinder traps the fingers, and the person has to figure out how to free his fingers from the trap. What one would expect to work — pull his fingers away from the trap — makes it tighter. To solve the “puzzle,” you press your fingers towards each other, loosening the trap.

Sports are equally psychological as they are physical. The mind can be your greatest ally or most significant enemy. I struggled mentally as a high school and college competitor. When he spoke to me last night, I instantly knew his dilemma. I, too, have fallen for the Chinese finger trap as an athlete. For that matter, I have fallen for it in many areas of my life.

We want to succeed, and we try so hard. In doing so, we worry about making mistakes, become immobile and impede our performance. We do worse instead of better. It’s a paradox. The common phrase goes — “what you resist, persists.” When we try harder, we do worse.

The question is, what do we do when we “press?” None of my suggestions are my own. I read a lot, and I am fascinated by sports psychology and performance. Mainly because of my shortcomings. When I started coaching over 20 years ago, I found that my problem was widespread — performing poorly under pressure. I have spent years learning as much as I can. Until recently, I probably didn’t fully understand the concept of “pressing” or trying too hard.

I know now that anything we focus on expands. If you look for good things in your life, you will see more good stuff. The reverse is also true. Complaining, whining, and blame leads to more complaining, whining, and blame. It is simple. When we are playing a sport, and something “bad” occurs, at the moment, what we focus on expands. In lacrosse, a pass was thrown over a teammate’s head and caused a turnover. The player internally starts to beat himself up and spends the next few seconds focusing on his pass and causing a turnover. He begins to worry more and more about making mistakes.

He tells himself he has to play better. His coaches do the same. They may yell and scream and ask, “What are you doing?”  I am sure you can guess what happens next. He makes more mistakes. He tries harder and harder and plays worse and worse. Eventually, his emotions take over, and he is useless.

They say the best athletes have a short-term memory. It is a gift that they can forget a bad pass or missed tackle. They get right back up and keep going like it never occurred. How? I believe they have the unique ability to allow negative thoughts to pass by them like water flowing down a stream. They don’t analyze the brain’s immediate impulse, “What are you doing!” They take a breath and direct their focus on the next play. If they decided to focus on the bad play and pay attention to it, they began to press.



Recognize the type of thoughts that will lead you down the rabbit hole of doubt, fear, or insecurity. Are they open-ended questions — “what if,” “why do I…” or critical and judgmental thoughts?

Distinguishing thoughts that are harmful to your performance allows you to step away and “observe” the thoughts. Recognizing is being conscious and aware of your thinking and not letting your brain short circuit because of debilitating mind chatter.


Avoid the trap

Here is the most challenging part, getting stuck in the circle of negative thinking. We have conditioned ourselves to over-analyze things. If something bad occurs, we are taught to learn from it, make corrections, and not make the same mistakes again. If an error is made, our first instinct is to figure out why it occurred.

Our brain will shoot out an answer. We are questioning and answering machines. “Why did you make that pass?” “Because you suck.” “It was one bad pass.” “Last game, you made two bad passes.” The cycle can go on and on until you are caught in a poor state. You become stuck in the trap.

You avoid the trap by not giving the bad pass any more attention. You don’t deny the mistake. You allow the thoughts to pass by not judging, analyzing, or finding fault. You turn your focus on what is happening in front of you. You slow the game down by shifting the focus onto your work ethic and attitude.

In wrestling, that might be focusing on getting to your base and standing up after giving up an easy takedown —nothing more and nothing less.

Avoiding the trap is not ignoring. It is being ok that you made a mistake and not getting caught up in the potentially endless stream of negative dialogue.



The best wrestlers in the world make mistakes and have bad matches. Becoming angry or frustrated does not help them wrestle better.

It enhances poor performance and may make it worse. Accept it for what it is — a mistake. Then surrender and let go. You can’t change the past. Dwelling on it will not help anyone wrestle better.

When we surrender, we let go of the need to perform to a certain level. We let go of guilt, blame, and judgment. We just wrestle because we love competing. We consciously allow the negative thoughts to pass by. In time, they will disappear.

To steal a quote from a friend and retired Marine Reconnaissance Officer- “people do not rise to the occasion, they fall back on their highest level of training.”

No player will all of a sudden become a “clutch” player. The clutch player has trained her body and mind for those situations when they occur. They hit the last-second shot in their minds hundreds if not thousands of times before the game has ever been played.

The mistake is we believe people rise to the occasion. Like practicing shots on goal or single-leg takedowns, developing a “short-term” memory comes from practice. You practice Recognizing, Avoiding, and Surrendering when working on skills and drills.

If you take a bad shot, recognize the bad shot, allow the negative thoughts to flow by you, and accept it and surrender.

Not giving it further attention and turn your focus onto what you can do next. In time, like everything else, it becomes a learned skill.

(John Klessinger is a teacher and coach at South River High  in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and on Facebook “Coach Kless”.)