I have started to notice a very strong pattern among athletes that I have worked with over the years. Deeper thinkers tend to be more affected by poor performance than others.
While some might suggest this to be obvious and explain it as paralysis by analysis, I’d suggest that it is a more complex issue than this. Have you ever noticed that very often, there are players that are known not to perform on the big day while others who are not as talented never have a problem and very often play above their potential. Very often the former suffer from worry about other peoples perceptions of their performance and doubt their ability to deliver under pressure. The latter tend often to either not really think about their previous performance, have an ability to wipe it from their memory or are able to keep perspective on it. Others may have a narcissistic personality with a deep belief in themselves and have no concerns about others perceptions of them.
Very often for the deep thinking performer, this can have a negative impact on their general thinking process and it can often affect their sense of self worth in daily life. A good performance and they are feeling great – a bad one and they are feeling extremely down. The problem here is that because they think so deeply about their sport, it has a deep effect on their sense of identity. More specifically, because their chosen sport means so much to them, they struggle to make the distinction between their REAL IDENTITY and their ATHLETIC IDENTITY. Having the ability to make such a distinction and keep the importance of the athletic identity in perspective is central to avoiding it having a negative effect on your sense of self worth. Just because you don’t perform to your max does not make you a lesser person. It just means that you had a bad day and can improve for the next day. Carrying anxieties over having a lesser than capable performance is not going to help. In fact it will only serve to increase the anxiety for the next day.
To put more context on it, a good golfer is very often mentally strong because he knows he is a good golfer even when he makes mistakes. He or she is able to channel a positive focus for the next shot irrespective of how the previous shot went. However, a mentally weak golfer could have his or her round destroyed by playing poorly on the first hole. He or she hasn’t got the ability or mental strength to process that a round of golf is made up of approximately 72 independent golf shots. Just because you mess up the first hole doesn’t mean you can’t score well on the remaining 17 holes – and scoring well in 17 out of 18 holes of golf will almost certainly guarantee a good score.
In helping some clients who have struggled with such issues, we decided that they needed to make the distinction beween their athletic and real identities. One such athlete is a promising provincial youth rugby player – an out-half scholarship athlete at a leading university, who gets very down when things don’t roll for him in games. A poor performance would have him feeling low and irritated until the next game. We teased out the difference between the following outlooks:
“I am an excellent rugby player when I play well”
“I am an excellent person who can play rugby (brilliantly)”
As an honours student on a sports scholarship, we looked at getting the player to recognise his strengths as a person first – that his sense of self efficacy was determined by him as a person rather than him as a rugby player. The second phrase or outlook “I am an excellent person who can play rugby (brilliantly)” allows him to look at his sport differently and his life in a broader context.
Flipping the view towards this one allows him to recognise other successful parts of his life and helps him put his sport in context. It allows him to have a view that he can play rugby brilliantly but that he is also allowed an off day without heaping pressure on himself afterwards. In essence, his sense of self worth is not totally determined by how he does in his sport.
Having such a broader view of ones existence, allows athletes to stay grounded, maintain perspective and alleviate mental burnout, aiding as a facilitative thought process to help an athlete enjoy their sport for the right reasons.
Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
Find us on Facebook: Elite Performance Sport Psychology Ireland