Jan 29, 2015
To Err Is Human

How you react after a misstep in the field says a lot about who you are.

By Dr. Amanda Andrews

Amanda Andrews, PhD, ATC, is an Assistant Professor and the Department Chair/Program Director for the Athletic Training Education Program at Troy University. She can be reached at: [email protected].

Mistakes. We all hate to make them. But mistakes are a part of every career, and athletic training is no exception. Whether it’s forgetting supplies on a road trip or misdiagnosing an injury, every athletic trainer has thought at one time or another, “I wish I hadn’t done that.”

As a student, you may feel pressure to be perfect. You are striving to gain the trust of your patient and the respect of your clinical instructor. So when you make an error, it’s easy to feel angry and frustrated.

But in reality, you are supposed to make mistakes. We often learn the most by correcting ourselves. Mistakes are golden opportunities for learning and personal growth.

At the same time, it’s important to know how to handle errors. Your reaction and what you learn from them can be a defining part of your future.

Your Reaction: Nobody likes to be embarrassed, especially in front of supervisors and patients. That’s why your first response after making a mistake may be to defend yourself. You may feel totally crushed or like you failed an important test.

But it’s critical to push aside your initial reactions and act professionally. How you respond in the face of adversity will not only tell your supervisors what type of person you are, it will give you an opportunity to prove you can overcome obstacles.

For example, if you are teaching an athlete a rehabilitative exercise and the certified athletic trainer corrects you, you should stop, listen, and take in everything you are being told. If you break down in tears and run out of the athletic training room, you may lose the confidence of the patient. If you argue with your supervisors, you may lose their respect.

The best response is to acknowledge that you were wrong and make a mental note of how to do it correctly the next time. You could say something like, “Thank you for showing me how to do that. I didn’t realize I was doing it incorrectly. I’ll be sure not to make that mistake again.”

Just because you made a mistake doesn’t mean people don’t like or trust you. It simply means you needed to be corrected for the safety of the patient. Take the correction as constructive criticism and move forward.

A Learning Opportunity: Your experiences as an athletic training student should be viewed as building blocks. You need to be comfortable with foundational skills before progressing to more complicated tasks. However, you shouldn’t be so fearful of making mistakes that you never try advanced activities. Know that making mistakes is part of the learning experience and you may be losing a valuable opportunity if you don’t try something because it seems difficult.

For example, let’s say an athlete comes into your facility with a possibly torn anterior cruciate ligament. You shouldn’t be afraid to perform a Lachman’s test, even if you have never done one before. Supervisors and patients understand that you are in the athletic training education program.

And if a supervisor corrects you, be thankful. Even if you feel you were doing a procedure appropriately, once the supervisor steps in, take the opportunity to learn. Remember that there are often multiple ways to perform a task. You might not be doing something wrong–you just may not be performing a procedure the way your supervisor would like it done. If this occurs, consider yourself lucky. You now know two different methods to complete the same task.

The Harsh Critic: Ideally, whenever someone corrects you, it will be in a supportive and educational way. But in reality, you may have supervisors who come across as abrasive when pointing out your mistakes. This can be a challenge.

To start, remember that supervisors are trying to teach you–and fitting this task into their other duties. They may be juggling 100 things at the same time and not have the time or patience to be gentle with their criticism.

Try not to take their words personally and remember that they may just be having a bad day. Learn from their instructions and do your best to ignore their demeanor.

However, if you are upset about the way you have been treated, talk to your supervisor at a later time, away from the bustle of the athletic training room. You might ask, “Do you have any time when you and I can discuss what happened this morning? I would like to know if there are ways to avoid a situation like that in the future.”

When you talk face-to-face, explain how you feel. Your supervisor may not realize how the experience affected you. Or, given a second chance, your supervisor may explain the situation in a way that teaches you something important.

Either way, by bringing it to their attention in a professional manner, you will show your emotional maturity. You will not only learn from your original mistake, but you will also grow by learning how to deal with conflict. You may even get a new perspective by hearing their ideas. And it sure beats bad-mouthing your supervisor to your fellow classmates, which just makes the situation worse.

Traumatic Experiences: Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. You may find yourself covering a contest in which a catastrophic injury occurs. Maybe you assisted medical personnel in spine boarding an athlete during a football game and the patient ultimately became paralyzed. Even if no one made a mistake, you may feel like you did.

After incidents such as this, people often blame themselves and replay every action they performed. They may become emotionally drained, depressed, and distant from friends and family. After traumatic events, it could be a good idea to seek help from a professional counselor or supervisor. Bottling up emotions and trying to deal with life-altering experiences by yourself can negatively affect your career. Always remember that you don’t have to deal with problems alone.

Your educational experience will be filled with highs and lows. You’ll have bad days and good days, mistakes and triumphs. How you handle adversity will not only build character, but also provide the building blocks for your career.


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