Short Lines, from Wrap Around with Dr Z: Issue I – Excuses or Explanations

Posted on Dec 14 2020 - 5:00am by DV

By Daniel Zimet, PhD, CMPC

We all know that athletes need confidence to win. How should an athlete handle a loss? By making blaming real or imagined factors like an injury, bad lighting, or bad luck or by simply acknowledging that he was beat?

Do excuses preserve the ego or delude reality? 

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Ben Franklin famously said, “He that makes excuses is seldom good for anything else.”  The same sentiment was made by John Wooden, who opined, “Never make excuses. Your friends don’t need them and your foes won’t believe them.”  Both men express the commonly held view that it’s bad form to make excuses for negative outcomes.

Generally speaking, if you want to be successful in life it pays to focus on your own responsibility in outcomes.  Blaming bad luck, other people, or what you can’t control, including certain things about yourself (e.g., ‘I’m too short’, ‘I’m just not good at it’) abdicates accountability and deprives you of the capacity to governor your life and change an outcome.  In short, making excuses is the same as saying, “there was nothing I could do about it.”  When everything is the fault of something outside of yourself, you’re stuck with no option but to endure.  Furthermore, if the same situation were to arise in the future, excuse-makers should expect the same result.

Yet blaming a bad ball, poor lighting, or an opponent’s good luck is a common refrain.  If we know that making excuse is a bad idea, why do people keep doing it?  Sigmund Freud, and then his daughter Anna Freud, noticed that people use a range of defenses to protect their ego, self-esteem or self-confidence.  These unconscious tactics, called Defense Mechanisms, ward off thoughts and emotions that would otherwise be unbearable.  Projection is the defense mechanism of making excuses; it involves placing our own faults and responsibilities on someone else.  And it works.  By blaming other people, we feel absolved of guilt, shame and accountability.  It provides a powerful and clear target for hostile feelings we’d rather not direct inward.  It also conserves energy.  It’s a lot of work to make personal changes!

We see Projection occur on multiple levels, from the individual micro-level, to the community or meso-level, to the culture-wide macro-level.  On the micro-level, it’s common to blame one’s parents, spouse, or job for feelings of misery.  We think, “If I just change my circumstances, I’d be happier.”  Yet research shows that external circumstances only account for around 25% of happiness, the remainder a combination of genetics and self-factors (i.e., attitude).  On the macro-level, history is replete with examples of societies scapegoating specific groups to externalize blame for hardships.

Most people like to think they’re immune to projection.  If you’re one of those people, ask yourself this question: what have you done in the past ten-years to give back to Handball, and whose responsibility is it to build new membership and keep our sport alive?  The lifeblood of community sport is the volunteer effort of people who take grassroots steps, but have you held yourself accountable as a critical piece of Handball’s future?  I know I’ve often fallen short in this regard.

It’s important to understand that there’s a difference between an explanation and an excuse.  An explanation seeks to determine the full truth through an honest investigation of responsible agents.  Excuses seek out only those explanations that support the rejection of responsibility and the opportunity to project blame.  In my role as a Sport Psychologist, I often help athletes find the path of explanation. Strong minded people are candid in their discovery of why, and then use that information to guide their future actions.

Herein lies the nuance of excuses and explanations.  There’s no question that luck plays a role in sport, and it can help when an athlete recognizes when this is occurring.  There are times when a draw works in the favor of an opponent, or match circumstances are unfavorable, or you sleep wrong and wake up with a stitch in your neck.  For elite level athletes, how unlucky would you have to be to go to the Olympics as a swimmer when Michael Phelps was in his prime?  Or have your career peak during a pandemic that shuts down the season?  Or enter the draft when a glut of athletes plays your position and only a few teams need to fill that role on their roster?  Or you develop an auto-immune disease that robs you of the ability to perform?  Unlucky situations happen all the time, and it’s erroneous and detrimental to blame yourself for everything.  But once you identify those elements that are out of your control and work against you, do you shrug your shoulders and walk away?  Or do you try to learn, develop, and overcome?

I encourage you to watch the TED talks from Jenine Shepherd, or better still, read one of her books.  Jenine was a Canadian Olympian who was paralyzed in a cycling accident while training.  Her journey from that tragedy is one of the most inspiring stories in sport, and exemplifies a powerful psychological construct, one that played a role in my passion for the subject.  The observation was made by Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust concentration camps and an Existential Psychologist.  In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I get chills every time I read it.  Here was a man who had everything taken from him.  He was starved, surrounded by death and under constant mortal threat.  But what he learned from that experience was that freedom was always available in the mind.  The freedom to love, to think, to hope, and above all else to choose your attitude.  He exemplified a most basic of Psychological truths.  That it’s not what happens to you that matters; it’s your attitude, what you choose to believe about those events, that defines your destiny.  Will you be the type of person to lament your circumstances, blame fate and argue that you played no role in a bad outcome?  Or will you find a way, no matter how small, to find strength and responsibility, to build an attitude of growth, of optimism, of inspiration?

When I work with athletes around making excuses, attitude is the core of my focus.  What attitude will lead you towards success?  Blaming everyone and everything for your faults or failures?  Or finding where you can play a role in shepherding yourself towards improvement?

It can be helpful to acknowledge truly unlucky circumstances because doing so frees you to move forward in constructive ways.  Everyone has a bad game, and you don’t need to completely retool yourself afterwards.  But if a pattern emerges, when a host of datapoints converge to illuminate a truth, it becomes time to take ownership and ask yourself, “what can I do to avoid this same outcome in the future?”

Remember, luck is when opportunity meets preparedness.  I love this expression, because it puts the uncontrollable back in your control.  You can’t control the outcome of most situations, particularly when they are complex and involve other people.  But you can put yourself into opportune moments, taking risks and challenging yourself.  You can be better prepared by practicing under adverse conditions and deliberately make yourself uncomfortable by playing in low light, with a dead ball, on new courts, or on glass walls.  You can play opponents who will prey on your weaknesses, and you can put more effort into your fitness.  Luck favors the prepared.

As a final thought, there are strong arguments that confidence isn’t an essential ingredient to success.  Many athletes report that it’s fear of failure or an underlying inferiority belief that fuels their pursuit of excellence.  I constantly struggle with anxiety the night before a tournament match, worrying about whether I’ll embarrass myself with a poor performance and have to answer questions about my play.  My mind’s common refrain is, “Why do you do this to yourself?  Why do you compete, when it causes you so much stress?”  The answer only arrives after the match.  Win or lose, I love handball.  That’s the only explanation I need.

DR Dan on the left w/Father on the right

Bonus questions!  From Elihu Zimet, Handball player & Editor

You seem to write about “making excuses” far beyond that of sports alone, but as a personality trait. Do these always go together? 

Traits can be defined as consistent and stable patterns of thought, emotion, or behavior reliably presenting across time and situation.  Is the tendency to make excuses a trait?  Or is it isolated to specific situations in a person’s life, like handball?  Rather than seeing this as a dichotomous choice, I’d suggest that it operates along a spectrum.  I have met many people, in and out of the counseling chair, who heavily utilize projection and seem to instinctively lean into excuses and blaming things out of their control for the problems they experience in life.  I refer to this tendency as taking on the ‘role of the victim’.  I would suggest that it’s common for this tendency to expand into multiple areas of a person’s life rather than remaining concentrated in just one arena, although I have seen that as well. 

Is admitting to yourself that you really are not blessed with an elite talent an excuse or just a healthy way to take pleasure in what you have?

It could be on or the other, depending on how important it is to the person to excel.  Not every activity in our lives requires mastery; in fact, nobody has the time for that kind of commitment to everything.  I’m perfectly content with mediocracy on a wide range of activities in my life, because my values, interests, and available time don’t solicit a desire to put in the work and I’d rather channel my energy and focus elsewhere.  Many athletes make the deliberate decision to play a sport recreationally, minimizing the pressure to perform at his or her highest possible level and gracefully accepting shortfalls in performance.  That’s not an excuse; it’s awareness that we are finite and can only strive for excellence in a limited way.

However, abandoning the pursuit of excellence due to a perceived lack of talent is an excuse.  There’s always room for growth.  It’s true that some athletes are uniquely gifted, and at the highest possible levels uncontrollable limitations can become real barriers.  At 5’6”, no amount of practice would get me on an NBA roster regardless of how much I loved Basketball.  However, at 5’9” Michael Chang reached #2 in the world and won the French Open. 

Perceived or actual shortcomings don’t have to be a barrier to finding your personal best.  When it comes to activities we value and find meaningful, that’s the only controllable goal worth pursuing.  Carol Dweck studied a continuum that ranged between a growth mindset and fixed mindset.  Fixed Mindset sees talent, skill, and ability as predetermined and largely inalterable; you either have it or you don’t.  Growth mindset sees these factors as mailable through effort and learning, which cause a feedback system of development.  Blaming an innate lack of talent is an excuse if that’s your only argument for not striving to reach your full potential.  In this case, it’s not a projection – it’s a rationalization, or an explanation we tell ourselves to justify our choices.  Rationalization is one of the healthier defense mechanisms, easing negative emotions around a thought or event that would otherwise cause distress by providing an explanation that feels true and sensible.

Musings from the Masters

Albert Apuzzi:  Humans aren’t bees. We have many individual differences. Do what works best for you. I played for many, many years with a partner who needed to blame everything bad on me. I understood that was his personality and, although it could occasionally be difficult, I let the behavior continue because I was able to absorb the abuse. I knew doing so was best for our team.

Do excuses preserve the ego or delude reality?  It seems that they go hand in hand. Deluding yourself helps preserve one’s ego.  Of course, there instances (ex. a legitimate injury, bad official, etc.) that are legitimate excuses.

Vern Roberts:  Here’s where all things can be true.  Making excuses may not be the right way to explain a loss as it can lead to ways to explain more losses.  Some days are just good days for your opponent and vice versa for you.  Being in competition(s), means we need to be able to deal with winning and losing and some accurate reflection on causes and effects for both can be very helpful for the next time you meet.

LeeAnn Martin:  I don’t think excuses are healthy or productive. Instead, think about what should be been done. Don’t dwell on mistakes or come up with reasons why things didn’t work out. Use your time and energy to visualize what you should do. See the good shots you should have hit. See the serves that would have been more effective. Then, practice them.

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