How excuses, blaming and complaining undermine mental toughness (how to fail part 2d)

Note: This article is part of a series on How to Fail in Basketball and Life.“Excuses are like counterfeit currency: no matter how convinced you are that they are legitimate, in reality they are worthless, and using them can buy you nothing but regret. “
— Tom Pittman (7)

Part 1: How to Fail in Basketball and in Life
Part 2a: Self-Deception: Success’s TRUE Nemesis
Part 2b: Unawareness: Success’s Blind Side
Part 2c: Denial: It ain’t just a river in Egypt
Part 2d: How excuses, blaming and complaining undermine mental toughness (this article)

How to Fail in Basketball and in Life
3Excuses, Blaming and Complaining

Jordan fluExcuses are a particularly pernicious form of self-deception. Excuses are like counterfeit currency: no matter how convinced you are that your excuses are legitimate reasons, in reality they are worthless, and using them can buy you nothing but regret.

Excuses give our minds a false finish line, thus tricking us into stopping before we should.

Interestingly, many of the people who tend to make excuses when things go wrong have no problem accepting credit when things go well, revealing a defective mindset and a faulty understanding of personal responsibility.

On Wednesday, June 11, 1997, Michael Jordan awoke in his hotel room in the Marriott hotel in Salt Lake City so sick with the flu he could hardly get out of bed. This was terrible news for Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, who faced the Utah Jazz that day in game 5 of the NBA Finals.

All things considered, Michael Jordan would have certainly been forgiven for calling in sick that day. Instead Jordan’s 38 points, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 blocked shot helped the Bulls eek out a narrow 90 – 88 victory over the Jazz.

Pippen helps Jordan with the flu

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is required to find a way when adversity has blocked it.In sports, refusing to accept excuses is called “mental toughness.” Mental toughness is required to find a way when adversity has blocked it.

Without mental toughness, people lose composure in the heat of adversity.

I can think of no clearer example of an adversity that causes people to lose their composure in basketball than people’s reactions to officiating.


It is part of a coach’s job to advocate with officials for his team, however, like everything else in coaching, there are smart ways to do it, and there are ineffective ways. Unfortunately, more often than not what most coaches do when they communicate to refs comes from a place of emotional reaction, rather than cerebral premeditation. Consequently, their “righteous” indignation hurts their team’s cause more than helps it.

dantoni_refs_1aIn trying to learn from my own mistakes in this regard, I’ve discovered that complaining almost never persuades the officials to turn from their “evil” ways. But what is worse, by allowing myself to believe poor officiating was the “reason” we were losing, I was hurting my team in a more insidious way than the refs were.

When a coach or a player complains about officiating, what we are really saying is that there has been an injustice, and we are the victim. A victim’s mentality is poison to winning. Why? Because victims, by definition, are acted upon and are not proactive. Victims are not the masters of their fate.

Mental toughness, on the other hand, is a determination to find a way, regardless the circumstances, regardless the obstacles.

D'Antoni and Mental ToughnessIt is counterproductive to winning to complain and allow yourself to feel the victim.

If on a given night the officiating turns out to be a an obstacle, it is highly unlikely that surrendering your mental toughness for the perverse luxury of complaining will reverse your fortune. So don’t do it. Take a deep breath, remember the bigger picture, then exhale. Don’t play the victim, play the game. Don’t whine and bray, find a way.

Whether or not you realize it, in moments such as these we are actually standing at a crossroads: one road is marked “victim” and the other “victor.” And the instant we choose a path, we excuse our minds from exploring whatever was on the other other path!

Coach, we can’t afford not to explore potential ways to victory; we’ve got to stay mentally tough in the heat of battle, and be that good example for our players. Somehow we have to be enough of a zen master ourselves to have the clarity of thought to assess our situation, our options, and affect them in a productive way that doesn’t undermine our team.

phil_jackson_refs1aHere is a test for you.

Look back at some of the times you have failed — either as a coach or in life — and pick one instance that particularly stands out. If you were to tell us that story, would you be tempted to try to frame the event in a way that explains why things turned out as they did?

If so, rather than justify your failure, make yourself retell the story, acknowledging your part in it, but this time emphasize why that event was one of the more important lessons of your life or coaching career.

That second version is the mentally tough approach, and it doesn’t have to be retrospective. You can have that mindset during adversity. In fact, you need that mindset through adversity because the moment you accept an excuse, you relieve your mind of its obligation to find a way, sharply increasing the odds that you will lose.

I have a a lot of respect for Coach Doc Rivers. I think Doc Rivers and Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks are great at interacting with their players in an effective way, but Coach Rivers is just brilliant at understanding the game as well. In fact, of all NBA coaches, I think I enjoy their post game press conferences the most, and smile at how both easily admit it when poor spacing made the game more difficult. (I still say spacing is the most neglected principle in basketball.) At any rate…


Each adverse event is a crossroads. The low road is paved, so it is attractive to most travelers — problem is, it is paved with excuses. The high road is unpaved and rough, but it is illuminated, thus allowing us to see options not visible to those who took the low road — but the high road requires our willingness to be 100% honest with ourselves. The choice is ours, as are the consequences.

The time has now come to end this series. The final part (still under construction) is:

Part 3: Confidence: Success’s Elusive Partner.

  1. TimTim07-02-2014

    I just finished reading this series and I have always found this discussion about honest self-evaluation to be interesting. First I have to say that I love reading your perspective on basketball because it is very analytical, which is similar to the way I think about things. One of the hardest parts for me personally is I feel I do a very good job of being honest with myself in evaluating anything I do, but most of my evaluations focus on what I did wrong (and how I can correct them) rather than what I did right. I also tend to lean more towards the “what you did wrong and how you can fix it” when working with my players. I often feel like my honest and realistic evaluation is seen as negative by my players (and even I can start to feel that way). I am definitely looking forward to the final part and hopefully you will touch on how it affects both self-confidence and confidence in others.

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