Frank Giampaolo, USPTA Elite Professional

Propose a simple question to any park & recreation, country club, high school or college coach “How often do you experience blame-shifting with your athletes?” I’m confident the answer will be a resounding “All of the time!” Unfortunately, until this is pointed out, most afflicted athletes are unaware that they possess this undesirable habit. Assisting athletes in overcoming this performance anxiety trait begins with awareness.

So what is blame-shifting?
Blame shifting is a process wherein the athlete transfers accountability for a possible upcoming catastrophe, essentially evading responsibility. It’s common that athletes fearful of being judged shift blame to avoid taking leadership in their own behavior. Athletes who have difficulty accepting ownership for their inadequate training and poor effort are prime contenders of covertly presetting their excuses.

Blame shifters are found at every level, in every club around the world. These athletes routinely point fingers at others in their sphere of influence. “I would have trained, but my Mom didn’t wake me up,” said 16-year-old Rebecca. “My wife scheduled breakfast with her sister so I couldn’t practice,” said 43-year-old Joe. These are typical excuses used as athletes assign the lack of responsibility to others within their entourage.

Another form of self-deception is blaming the probable upcoming loss on a phony injury. “I can’t play today, my wrist is sore, my knee hurts or I feel sick.” These are what I call ego outs. These psychosomatic ailments are coping mechanisms used to ease their fear of failure often caused by their lack of proper preparation. When used habitually, these athletes believe that they’re the victim when in reality, the problem is all their own.

A solution for dealing with these “excuse experts” is to ask the athlete to honor their competitive commitment and try to play – even for only a game or two. If the injury indeed persists, it’s acceptable to default. Convincing the athlete to at least show up and try to compete is a critical first step in overcoming this performance anxiety.

It’s important to reiterate that blame shifting is a coping mechanism used to deal with stress. When this behavior goes unchecked, it could negatively affect the athlete on and off the court for his or her lifetime.

One solution to eliminating blame-shifting begins by replacing the behavior. I highly recommend the FLIP IT game. When you hear a blame shift, smile and say “Flip it!” Ask the athlete to flip their pessimistic comment into an optimistic one. Essentially this is rewiring their problem-based dialog with a solution based response. Changing this performance anxiety begins with gentle awareness. Just telling an athlete to stop doing any negative behavior rarely works. The solution stems from replacing the negative behaviors with positive actions.

An experienced coach can flip this behavior by encouraging the athlete and their entourage to accept responsibility. 

Here’s how: 
1. Organize daily and weekly planners and expect the athlete to be accountable for completing their customized developmental plan. This includes a full tool belt of strokes: athleticism (such as speed, agility, and stamina), the wide range of customized strategies and tactics found in mental toughness, and the emotional components (such as solutions to performance anxieties) as they prepare properly for pressure.

2. Ask members of their entourage to lead by example by making their words match their actions. I’ve often witnessed loving parents who subscribe to the philosophy that rules don’t apply to them. They routinely arrive 15 minutes late to their child’s lesson. They make their child skip practice when it suits their needs. Though these parents tell their children “You need to work hard,” their actions say “unless there’s something more enjoyable to do.” Leading by example is key.

3. Design an entourage agreement to move the process from deliberation to action.  In this contract, each party commits to excellence for a specified period of time. By teaching life skills, such as accountability and time management, you’ll change your pretenders into contenders.

Blame shifting is a common stumbling block for many in today’s athletic arena. It is important to recognize that when athletes feel they are being judged, blame shifting may ensue. Striving to apply the above solutions will not only maximize your athlete’s tennis potential, but it will also develop strong, confident, and resilient people.