I was thinking about what to write this article on, what aspect of performance and psychology would most interest and excite? Perhaps mental toughness or relaxation techniques or imagery, however, I have decided to write on a much more important topic: responsibility.
Every athlete, whatever their level, must take responsibility for their performance. There are the easy and obvious ways of doing this, in practice and in competition, that are well documented, but I want to look at the personal aspects of responsibility that directly affect the individual’s self esteem. These can often be summarized with the most simple and painful of questions, “Why doesn’t it work?” and “How do I make this better?” Bizarrely many will at this point choose to battle on performing under their potential without seeking outside assistance. They will blame all sorts of external factors on their lack of success, choosing not to face their own weaknesses and seek assistance.
Responsibility is, to quote that most famous of films, Top Gun,
“not letting your mouth write cheques your talent can’t cash”.
It is the ability for an athlete to decide what they want and what they are willing to do and give up to get that. Every junior I speak to, in whatever sport, will tell me that they are going to win the Olympics. They tell me this as if that is all boxes ticked, however the most simple of questions “How are you going to do that?” does tend to produce some mumblings about represent my national team, compete at international level……”
Can I do it on my own and do I want to?
In order to achieve even the most basic proficiency at any skill one normally requires a teacher and in everything but sport, having a teacher does not harm the self esteem of the performer. But for these amateurish wannabes having a teacher, coach, mentor, call it what you will somehow detracts from their self esteem. How many athletes, even at a high level, do we read about breaking from their national coaching system, or individual coaches due to nothing more substantial than “artistic differences”. National federations give thought, time and money, often asking these top level performers their opinions, wants and needs only for these athletes to be quick to distance themselves from the system during both good an bad results. Athletes are quick to take the financial help and opportunities offered to them by national federations only to “bellyache” in public and private about how difficult it is to be constrained within this system.
In India over the last decade there has been an archery program that has had quite some international success and the major reason behind this has been that each athlete on that program takes responsibility for their actions as there are, literally, hundreds of people who are desperate to take their place. Not because of any love of archery but because it is a way out of poverty.
So where am I going with this in a way that is useful to the individual competitor reading this article?
Each of you must sit down with a large blank piece of paper and put at the bottom of it what you want to achieve (your ultimate goal), this may be to win a world or an Olympic medal or it may be to win a much more humble competition. At the top of the page put an honest assessment of where you are upto at this moment, your level of ability, dedication etc. Now start to work up from your ultimate goal what you would have to achieve stepwise to get from where you are now to your ultimate goal BUT WORK BACKWARDS (it is easier). Having done that step back from it and ask the first simple question; “Am I willing to do this?” if answer yes then ask the really big question; “Can I do this?” Perhaps I should have rephrased that to, “Can I do this on my own?” If it is going to require some outside assistance then the performer must understand they are giving up some control of the situation and this has a cost.
So now we are at the real heart of the athletes dilemma, Responsibilty and Honesty,
“am I willing to do it and am I good enough to do it?”
If you are going to need outside help then look at what that is going to cost. For many athletes at a national level this is not a financial cost out of their own pockets as coaching is often provided for them by national federations. However, even if there isn’t an obvious financial cost to the athlete for this support there is a cost emotionally, and this can often be seen in a strange way: the athlete is at pains to point out how rubbish the national system they are in is and how little good it has done them.
A religion not a supermarket.
If an athlete takes on a coach or is part of national program then they can not pick and choose the aspects they want and don’t want. This is like going to your boss, “Wednesdays aren’t really for me, I appreciate that everyone else is expected to work Wednesdays but I just don’t fancy it.”
Of course if the athlete/employee takes some responsibility and goes “Wednesdays are difficult for me but I appreciate it is important so how do I put in time to make up for that missed time, what can I do to show that I am taking responsibility for my actions and how do I fit in with the program?” then that is a more effective approach.
At the beginning of the journey a performer will agree to anything that will allow them to progress but are the really willing to do this, will they stick with the system through the bad and the good and take responsibility for their own part? In order to achieve a goal of any level the performer will have to give up part of themselves, be that free will or their self esteem to a system or a federation or even a coach and if they can not part with that control they need to think long and hard if they should take that opportunity from someone else who will.