Responding to Errors and Signs of Fatigue: Heat-of-the-Moment Adaptability, Anyone?


It’s the middle of a competition workout, and you are racing against the clock and other competitors.  You have to successfully complete a certain number of snatches in a small amount of time.  You hit your first five attempts and then fail the next two.  What goes through your mind?

It’s mile eight of a half marathon and you’re gunning for a personal best time.  You start feeling some unexpected shortness of breath and tightening in your quads.  You are just over halfway through the race and running at a pretty fast pace.  What do you say to yourself?

Perhaps you’re a ruminator and a glass-half-empty athlete, ready to go to a negative headspace when given the chance.  You’re likely to dwell on the failure and tell yourself you’re in trouble.  You might get stuck in some seriously negative thinking, saying things like, “here we go, I knew this would happen,” or “I suck at weightlifting and there’s no way I can come back now.  The guy next to me is already two ahead with no failed attempts.”

Maybe if you’re the runner, you choose to ignore the early warning signs of fatigue in your body, deciding instead to keep pushing forward, because you’re going fast and don’t want to risk things going south.  You tell yourself you’re not hurting and blaze forward at your unplanned pace.

It’s probably not surprising to hear that neither of these strategies is optimal for peak performance (see references below for more in-depth analysis).  Ruminating and focusing on the negative is most likely to consume you, decrease confidence, and prevent you from dialing in the technique you need to execute in order to perform better.  Likewise, ignoring physical signs in your body is likely to lead to poor strategy choice and prevent on-the-go modifications that might otherwise get you on track towards your goal.  These modifications might include slowing your breathing, finding a new cadence in a movement, or dialing in your technique through a prepared mantra with pointers that work for you.

As athletes, we can benefit from flexibility while we perform.  We can learn how to evaluate our motor patterns, assess our application of learned techniques, and coach ourselves mid-performance toward a correction.  We can learn to listen to signals in our bodies that alert us to change our approach and/or recruit strategies to calm ourselves and become more efficient.  This mid-workout capacity must be practiced and developed.  It is not automatic, and we need to drill it as we would other skills.

Clearly, the applications to life off the field and outside of the gym are significant.  It’s worth thinking about our flexibility and adaptability midstream in our lives outside of physical pursuits.  Perhaps, for example, you could become better at reading the cues from your audience when giving a presentation at work.  Instead of ruminating or spiraling into negative self-talk when you perceive boredom in the room, you can learn to make use of this as a trigger that you’re being too long-winded and skip certain information that is not critical to your overall message.  Perhaps you can learn to be a better communicator in your primary relationships by being aware of your body language, your tone, your tendency to raise your voice when triggered.  You need to practice this kind of self-monitoring on the go, in the moment, as it’s happening, knowing ahead of time what strategies work for you so you can quickly alter your behavior.

We need to become more mobile, flexible, adaptable.  We need to practice how to be aware of, respond to, and learn from, external and internal cues.  We need to have at our beck and call some go-to strategies that work for us.  This is true for our time on the playing field, in the workplace, and in relationships.  Like doing Yoga, meditating, learning Calculus, or studying piano, this takes time, effort, and focus.  Make it happen, so you can find a way to be awesome in the heat of the moment and not just after the moment has passed.

Harmison, R.J. (2011). Peak Performance in Sport: Identifying Ideal Performance States and Developing Athletes’ Psychological Skills. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology,1(S), 3–18
Ivancic, K. and Hesketh, B. Learning from errors in a driving simulation: Effects on driving skill and self-confidence. Ergonomics, Vol 43(12), Dec 2000, 1966-1984.
Kerr, G. and Leith, L. (1993).  Stress management and athletic performance. The Sport Psychologist, 7(3): 221-231.
Mahoney, M., & Avener, M. (1977). Psychology and the elite athlete: An exploratory study. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1, 135–141.
Martens, R., Vealey, R., & Burton, D. (1990). Competitive anxiety in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Morgan, W. (1984). Mind over matter. In W. Straub & J. Williams (Eds.), Cognitive sport psychology (pp. 311–316). Lansing, NY: Sport Science Associates.
Suinn, R.M. (2005).  Behavioral Intervention for Stress Management in Sports.  International Journal of Stress Management, 12(4), 343-362.


  1. Is there any way you can also make a link so that these articles have a “printer-friendly” version? Would be really helpful 🙂

    • Hi Justin,
      Sorry for the delay–I was consulting with my tech person! Here’s what he said:
      Generally, wordpress articles are pretty printer friendly, but if you want it to be perfect, I’d recommend creating a PDF link for each article, at the top.
      You could save the article as a PDF in your word processor, upload the PDF to “media” on wordpress and insert the link into the article.

      I hope that helps and thanks so much for your interest in my work!

      Allison from

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