Let me tell you a story about last summer. I was working out at my high school gym and my Dad was rebounding for me.
It was a heavy shooting day and I was missing everything. I mean, EVERYTHING. And with every miss, I was getting more and more frustrated. Eventually I came to a drill where I was shooting curl 3's from the wing. I had to make 10 and it was taking me forever.
After a particularly bad miss, I was chasing down the rebound and my Dad said, "This is a tough shot and you must have tired legs from yesterday's hard lifting session.” He was just trying to be helpful but I almost blew up at him. It took all of my restraint to not yell back at him in frustration.
I repeated the drill, over and over and over until I was satisfied with how I performed (my target was 10 makes in 14 shots).
Finally, I finished the drill and walked to the free throw line to shoot 2 FT's between sets. But, I was seething on the inside. After the second free throw, I couldn't hold it in anymore.
"Don't ever give me an excuse like that again." I said angrily. My Dad turned to me with a look of confusion and shock.
I rarely display that kind of anger and biting tone, especially toward him. "What?" he said, clearly taken aback by my outburst.
"I don't want any excuses rattling around in my head."
“What are you talking about?"
I took a deep breath and calmed myself down before explaining it to him.
“I don’t want you to tell me that there’s any other reason why I missed that shot other than me. If you say that it’s OK if I miss because my legs are tired, or it’s a difficult shot, or even that the rim is too high or whatever, it takes away my control. You know what I mean?"
“I’m sorry,” my dad replied still looking somewhat perplexed, “I was just trying to be considerate and pump up your confidence."
“I know, I know” I said, already embarrassed about my misplaced anger, “It’s not your fault, I need to be strong enough mentally to control my own thoughts anyways.” I paused for a moment, “but do you see what I’m saying? If I let an excuse like that creep into my mind, I give up my power, my control. And I can’t have that. Every time I internalize an excuse, it’s like I’m intentionally taking myself out of the drivers seat."
So, why did I share this story? Not because it’s acceptable to yell at your Dad (my Dad is the most selfless person I’ve ever met and I still feel guilty about this incident because he was so willing to help rebound for me). I share this because excuses are like the plague. They’re dangerous, insidious little viruses that sneak their into your mind and propagate themselves, slowly chipping away at your mental strength.
The little buggers are so enticing because they excuse us of blame. Excuses are a psychological defense mechanism that we can rely on to protect our fragile mental psyche.
Let’s clarify this statement. When I miss a shot, for example, I’m staring failure dead in the face. My objective was to make the shot and thus, have failed. There’s nothing or nobody else to blame except myself, which is difficult to handle.
It’s painful and uncomfortable to stare the failure dead in the face because even the smallest failures evoke negative feelings. For some it's inadequacy or imperfection, for others it’s embarrassment or shame.
But, wait. Here comes this little thought drifting into my mind. It looks at me innocently and says hey, it’s not your fault, it was a bad pass from your teammate. Blame him. How incredibly inviting it is to accept that excuse. Just listen to me, the excuse says, and I can make that bad feeling go away.
Now can you see how insidious excuses are?
The problem is often that we make excuses and are completely unaware of it. We go through this whole mental process unconsciously. It’s not like the excuse wants you to know it’s there. It exists to protect your fragile mental psyche so staying in the background is in its best interest.
If you don’t even know you’re making an excuse, well, the excuse can pack up its bags and head out. Job well done. The excuse protects you from the distress and discomfort of taking accountability for your failure.
At this point, you might be saying, “Come on Ty, aren’t you being a little overdramatic? " Well, the answer is probably yes. But excuses can be incredibly destructive.
In my view, excuses are one of the fundamental sins of mental toughness. Here’s why:
- They rationalize unproductive behavior
Excuses allow you to justify something that will eventually get in the way of reaching your goal. If you make an excuse not to work hard during a certain drill, you’re simply allowing behavior that is counterproductive toward your goals.
- They get rid of your control
When excuses dictate your actions, you voluntarily allow outside circumstances to impact your behavior.
- They foster bad habits
Excuses create negative actions, which—if continued over time—will form into bad habits.
- They drain your personal willpower and accountability
There’s no worse way to undermine your personal willpower than to allow excuses to be stronger than you.
- They encourage more excuses
Have you noticed that it’s easier to half-ass a drill when you half-assed the drill before? That’s because one excuse often leads to another. It’s much easier to accept an excuse than to fight it. So when we accept one, what’s the harm in accepting one more?
Let’s give some examples: Any of these thoughts sound familiar?
- “Well, I had a game yesterday, soI I’m gonna take it easy in practice today."
- “I didn’t sleep well last night and am exhausted so I’ll just do 3/4 of my weight room routine."
- “I’m hungry and my friends are leaving for dinner so I’m gonna skip my post-practice stretching routine."
- “The gym is freezing! No wonder I can’t shoot today."
I definitely recognize these thoughts. I have some variation of them almost every day. Nobody is immune to them. But just because you have them, doesn’t mean you have to let them impact you. The key to protecting yourself from these thoughts is twofold.
1. Recognize that you're making an Excuse: Make it a habit to recognize these thought patterns (especially the ones that you deal with most often). Start becoming aware of your thought process. What were you thinking after that last mistake? What was going through your mind when you decided to skip that last workout?
The more aware you are of your conscious thought process, the easier it will be to recognize and deal with excuses as they arise. Meditation and conscious breathing are the best tools I know for improving self-awareness (meditation post coming soon).
2. Positive Self-Talk: Quickly and consciously inject more constructive thoughts in place of the excuse. Positive self-talk is like your immune system. It fights off the excuse virus and allows your body and mind to perform at their peak.
For example, I often find myself thinking, man, I had a really tough workout and practice last night and I fought through it. I’ll just sleep in and skip my individual skill work tomorrow. I deserve it.
When these thoughts show up I immediately respond with something like this, Come on Ty, you’re only cheating yourself if you skip this workout. To reach your goals, you gotta be consistent. Let’s go attack it tomorrow. This is a great chance to test your resolve.
If you find yourself dealing with a certain excuse over and over again, try writing out a few positive phrases that you can repeat to yourself. It may sound cheesy but I promise, it’s effective. Here are a few examples that have worked for me in various situations:
Embrace the grind
Each failure is a step on the path to success
You’re only cheating yourself
Come on man! You’re better than this!
Embrace this obstacle as an amazing opportunity to build mental strength
With an arsenal of positive self-talk at your fingertips, you’re equipped to fight off excuses before they create negative actions.
My JV high school coach used to say we had 2 team rules:
Rule #1: No excuses.
Rule #2: Repeat rule number 1.
Summary: Excuses are our mind’s attempt to protect our fragile mental psyche. But, they’re incredibly harmful to our mental strength and lead to a host of negative outcomes. Don’t let excuses hang around to impact your effort or attitude by (1) training your mind to recognize your thought patterns and (2) using positive self-talk to counteract the harmful effects of excuses.