I’m a pretty disappointed football fan right now. Let me tell you why.

The Giants (who are my favorite team because they’re my dad’s favorite team, and that’s how football works) have gone from being one of the best teams in the NFL to one of its biggest jokes in the space of about two weeks.

They have managed to accomplish this by making a lot of mistakes they didn’t have to make. It’s really nobody’s fault but their own.

Great athletes and coaches know something that most teachers and test-takers seem not to realize: We can almost always do better at something when we focus on controlling the mistakes we can control rather than worrying about what we can’t control. If you want to make truly incredible gains in almost any activity, start sweating the small stuff a little bit more and prepare to be amazed at your progress.

The Giants have more turnovers this year than any other NFL team, and their quarterback, Eli Manning, has more turnovers than any other player. Turnovers often end up costing points, and they’re usually totally preventable. One great example: In his first game this year with the Eagles, Manning was in the middle of staging an important comeback in a very close contest when he decided to run for a first down, something he rarely does. He gained the first down and then slid head-first for more yardage, and dropped the ball when he hit the ground, resulting in a fumble that was recovered by the Eagles. Game over.

Here’s a video:

Sliding feet-first and holding on to the ball with two arms in a situation like that are absolutely fundamental parts of football. Manning, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, surely knows this. But he screwed it up under pressure.

His mistake cost his team the game, but that’s not all. Losing the game cost them control of the division and put the Eagles in first place, so that when the Giants and Eagles played again, the Eagles were in the dominant position. The Giants played well for most of the game, making very few mistakes . . . and then went through one of the most embarrassing collapses in NFL history when the Eagles rallied from a huge deficit to win the game at the last second.

The second collapse against the Eagles can also be attributed to a lack of fundamentals. The defense gave up its leverage on Michael Vick too many times late in the game, and he made them pay for it. The final nail in the coffin came when Matt Dodge kicked a punt directly at one of the best players in the game, who ran it back for a touchdown; Dodge only needed to kick the ball anywhere else on the field to keep that touchdown from happening, and he knew it. But he didn’t execute.

I’m not saying that the outcome of any football game is the result of only one mistake. But each little mistake sets up conditions that make the impact of the next mistake worse than it might otherwise have been. If Manning hadn’t fumbled in the first game or the defense had been better with leverage or Dodge had punted correctly in the second game, the Giants might well be in a very different position now. But Dodge’s bad punt on top of the defensive collapse on top of Manning’s fumble have resulted in a very talented team likely failing to make the playoffs.

In other words, a team of tremendous athletes in phenomenal shape who understand the game on a very high level can be reduced to nothing by something as basic as not dropping a ball when you fall down by yourself–something even a 3 year-old could do correctly if you told him how important it was.

Eli Manning’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t know enough complicated plays or hasn’t watched enough film or analyzed enough defenses. He has taken care of all of that. His problem is that when he falls down on purpose and all by himself, he sometimes lets the ball go. (Okay, he also throws the ball to people in the wrong shirt sometimes, but you get what I mean: these mistakes could be corrected easily.)

I see the same thing all the time when people first come to me for tutoring.

I cannot possibly remember how many times I’ve been approached by a student who was much better at advanced math than I was but who couldn’t seem to break 700 on the SAT Math or 30 on the ACT Math, only to work with the student and realize that the majority of the questions she was missing were the result of misreading, miscalculating, and other elementary mistakes.

And it stretches across the entire spectrum of multiple-choice standardized tests, because these kinds of tests function by asking about very simple things in very bizarre ways.

The good news is that the fundamentals of test-taking are often the easiest things to fix, once somebody points them out to you or you notice them on your own. And when you do fix them, you’ll often see your scores go up tremendously, because the fundamentals of test-taking come up on every single test question.

If Eli Manning could only have kept from dropping footballs and passing to the wrong people this season, the Giants would have clinched a playoff spot already. Actually, if Manning had only had half as many unforced turnovers as he had, the team would probably be safe.

And if you can stop making unforced errors on your tests–or at least consistently reduce them–you’ll find that you don’t need to worry about the occasional question that seems mind-blowingly hard, because those questions are more than outweighed by the fact that you’re not missing nearly as many of the easier ones.

And if you can really, truly master the fundamentals of test-taking, a perfect score or near-perfect score becomes automatic.

This is why my approach to standardized tests focuses on stripping things down to their essentials whenever possible. It’s also why I always focus so much on understanding an entire question and thinking about answer choices as part of the process: that’s one of the best ways to make sure you don’t make any small, silly mistakes that could end up costing you the season, so to speak.

In testing, in football, and in most things, when you stop giving away points that you don’t need to give away, you win. And it’s usually a lot easier to stop giving away points than it is to worry about getting new points.