The great ones don’t look back

Monday morning quarterback: learn from mistakes

Watching football this time of year you can’t help but notice the special quarterbacks, the great ones who are the top stars: Tom Brady of the Patriots, Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, or Peyton Manning of the Broncos.

The games they lead get into a rhythm of winning; the quarterbacks enter the zone, and feel the flow of the game.  Most importantly, when errors occur, the interception, the dropped pass, the sack, the quarterback moves on as if it never happened.

Not looking back is key in both in sports and in health.  My patients who come in with stories of woe, focused on what one doctor did or did not do for them, have a much harder time then the patients who seek advice on where to go from here and how to recover quickly from their injury. Some patients are burdened by blame. They focus, for example, on the store that had the wet floor causing them to slip and they listen for sympathy rather than solutions.  Letting go and moving on is sometimes hard to do.

So how do you do what the great ones do? What I find is that it’s all about learning when to look back and recognizing what to look for.

In medicine and surgery, we start our process by being sure of an accurate diagnosis.  History, physical exam, x-rays and usually MRIs are used for most serious sports injuries.  We come up with a treatment plan, with or without surgery, and we execute that plan. When it works, we feel proud of ourselves and our patients. When it doesn’t, we examine every decision, find a new approach and move on. The ability to park the regret over an unsuccessful outcome, to store it for examination later and focus on a new solution, characterizes the successful physician.  The operative word is “later”.

In medicine, as with sports, it doesn’t help to be distracted by the unsuccessful approach as you are dealing with the immediate consequences. However, it is essential to go back and examine it later, to learn from it and use it to improve the next decision.  Poor doctors or athletes forget to do the analysis or simply don’t remember the lessons. 

The ability to park the frustration comes from the absolute confidence that the examination that will come later will be more fruitful and that any conclusions made now will be incomplete and interfere with the job at hand.  Steely assurance of that fact is the magic behind the unperturbed face of the intercepted quarterback.

So my advice is to practice being a Monday morning quarterback.  Review your good and bad decisions.  Become expert at the analysis and the design of the new action plan.  Be creative in your thought process in order to avoid thinking in the same patterns that led to the first error.  Speed up your pattern recognition so you can see and then reject a losing play in a set of circumstances.  But do it later. 

Great ones don’t look back, at that moment.  They do it later so that the same error doesn’t happen twice. They stay in their magical flow, seeing the new possibilities and creating novel ones.

Medically authored by
Kevin R. Stone, MD
Orthopaedic surgeon, clinician, scientist, inventor, and founder of multiple companies. Dr. Stone was trained at Harvard University in internal medicine and orthopaedic surgery and at Stanford University in general surgery.