In sport, it is believed by many that, the truly successful fall into one of two categories. The pompous or the unaware.
Let us deal with the latter category first, individuals who are too unaware to fear failure. They stare into the black abyss of fear and self doubt and are too unaware to understand what it is; a dangerous situation where mere mortals may break down. This lack of self-awareness can be viewed as an advantage in a performance, but it is impossible to teach and does not prevent skill failure at some point due to self-doubt. This kind of athlete is best exemplified by the great golfer John Daly, a star that burnt very brightly, during his relatively short professional career, achieving great and mercurial feats on a golf course, and whose call to arms was:
“grip it and rip it.”
So what of the other category the pompous, these individuals are more common in older athletes.
Their method of dealing with self-doubts is denial based around a misapprehension that they are able to control all aspects of the performance.
Their pomposity is their belief that they control all aspects of the performance. They have no understanding of frailty, of failure, and they are loved by coaches, managers and journalists alike. I would contend that they do not really exist as people; they are nothing more than an explanation by ageing athletes and motivating coaches of how an athlete should function. They are destined to be truly unhappy individuals because no matter how hard an individual claims to have no fear and be in total control there is a part of them that knows that neither of these things is true. This constant level of denial will catch up with the individual. It may catch up with them long after they retire or it may catch up with them during their careers with cataclysmic effect. This approach is often taught to young athletes. These athletes are no longer taught humility or understand the concept of, “there for the grace of God go I.” This outlook can only lead them into greater psychological turmoil. Humanistic psychology tells us that we all have frailties, and that we must embrace those frailties in order to overcome them or minimize them. In understanding our frailties and the things, which are out with our control, we have the humility that allows us to function as human beings.
Just two options?
It is truly depressing to believe that these are the only two options that can be used to deal with the terrifying and uplifting experiences that are present in sport, or any other performance for that matter. However for many coaches these are the only two models for successful sportsmen, and I’ve chosen my words very carefully there. There is an idea, unfashionable, as it may now be, that this pompous or unaware approaches are actually male traits and that females should be better skilled to find another more functional approach. I actually believe that this is true, however over the last 40 years in all aspects not just sport there has been a blurring between the defining traits of male and female psyche. Sadly this blurring has not been in any way positive, it has not taken the best of the traits that both sexes had to offer but has masculinised the feminine approach, and so in sport and business females have been forced to show more masculine traits in order to fit in and succeed.
So which would I choose the unaware or the pompous?
It is a difficult one to answer. The unaware are psychologically healthier. They are oblivious to any perceived difficulties and can perform superhuman tasks because they are told to or they think they should. This approach can be useful especially in team games, and for that matter war, but to the individual sportsman they will lead to a horrible dawn where self-doubt comes crashing in due to poor performance.
So what of the pompous? What of these individuals who believe that they control everything, that everything can be forced into place. They too will come to a horrible realization and failure due to lack of confidence.
As time passes these two groups will teach the young athletes and performers that these are functional coping strategies and there will be no place for humility. Humility in sport, that actually used to exist in its links to religion, a moment at the beginning of each performance where the individuals would take a moment to pray or ask for guidance or help during their endeavor. I am not advocating a return to overt religious practices tied up with sport, but I am advocating humility. As the underlying premise for any performer,
“Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other,”
should be the mantra.
So do I believe is there is a third option? I do, and it is a mixture of the two coping strategies discussed, held together with a balanced trust and humility in the athlete’s own ability.
They SHOULD grip it and rip it, whilst at the same time they should work hard in practice to control and mitigate as many of the aspects of their performances they can. However to be effective as competitors over any length of time they must embrace their frailties; they should understand the weaknesses within their game and personality and not hide from them. It is not an emotional or psychological weakness to be aware of our personal situation. No individual can achieve their goals unless they are honest with themselves. They must be honest about their feelings and be congruent to the situation, as they perceive it. They can not live through a team mates or coaches eyes, and must understand that their perception of the situation is correct with respect to the information that they have to hand on the events unfolding around them.
We live in a climate where to admit frailty or weakness is to admit failure, Competitive Anxiety can be both debilitative and facilitative, to be ignorant of its effects is as dangerous as the negativity evangelical support staff see in their realistic charges. This is an irregular declension depending on perspective: I am a realist, you are a cautious, he/she is negative. We live in a climate where to want something is enough. These two attitudes are leading to psychologically weak and scarred individual and poor performance.
So what can an individual do? How does an athlete at any level learn to perform in a way that allows them to deal with their fears and yet not be incapacitated by them? How does an inexperienced athlete deal with being told to be positive and to be great? What if this is not how they feel? Are they Wrong?
Let us be clear that, to some extent, they have a level of self-belief and self-efficacy that has allowed them to get to this point in their careers. They may find it difficult to be truthfully wholly positive about there potential or their situation. If they are told that a lack of apparent positivity is destructive or a failing on their part then this is not likely to improve their outlook. They must take some time to see what it is they have issues with. To see how their “frailties” are going to influence their ability to perform.