To the outsider high end performance sport is a confusing pastime. An athlete spends hundreds, if not thousands, of hours a year practicing and training, they invest physically, financially and emotionally to the exclusion of other “normal” aspects of life and to the outsider the question most asked is “does it make you happy?”. It is easy to watch the athlete who has just won an international medal or set a new record and see the pleasure that this brings them and answer this question as “yes”, but even this athlete will have spent time plumbing the depths of despair that most people never have to get to. For the athlete the question “is it worth it?” is one that is often shied away from but when faced has the simple answer “yes”. A psychologist’s job is often seen to be purely improving performance with little or no concern for the athlete’s general feelings and well-being. So how does an athlete learn to deal with the lows, and let us be clear at this point, the same emotional rollercoaster is experienced by any athlete whatever their level if their self esteem is linked to their performance.
The first area to look at is how the athlete measures their performance.
Many do so poorly, it is important to have a realistic pre-destined measure in place for any performance. In archery this may well mean three levels of scoring, with respect to a specific performance; “I don’t expect to shoot less than……”, “I expect to shoot….. with respect to how my practice preceding the event has been going”, “I would like to shoot….. and this would require a good/ lucky day”. This may seem as though the athlete is hedging their bets, the “can’t shoot lower than level” is that all important self esteem level that makes it an average performance, and we have average days most of our lives. Even a great athlete must be aware of what this level is for without it there can be no basis to judge ones performance. The middle score, “I expect to shoot”, should be a level which gives satisfaction for a job well done and is 70% likely, with respect to present levels achieved in training and fitness on the day. This level is what athletes are striving for at all major competitions, it must be based in honesty and realism on the part of the performer and allows that performer to go home with a “job well done” attitude. The final level of scoring is when an athlete breaks a competition PB. This should be attainable but is only 30% likely and the athlete cannot expect this to happen, it requires, as all great performances do, a little bit of luck which no athlete can manufacture. To give you an example of how close these numbers may be together and how fine the difference may be between levels of performance and how honest the athlete must be about their own potential let me give you an example. I recently entered an indoor competition where the low end score was 588, the mid score was 592 and the top score was 594 (my personal best). These numbers would to most people seem very close together but with my own personal experience and my understanding of my own abilities these numbers identified the three levels of peroformance that were acceptable for the day. Even the lower of the three scores would still be an acceptable performance and in fact due to some early errors in the round this was exactly the score I ended up with and required a much better second half over the first half with this figure in mind. I undoubtedly went away from this competition feeling that I had under performed however my self esteem was intact because I had kept it within the range I had decided beforehand and I was able to look at the performance overall and see which aspects of it were lacking. To this end I was able a week later in competition with exactly the same range of scores in mind able to have a “job well done” day of 592, in no small part due to being able to identify the areas from the previous competition that were weak. Without these measures and the honesty and realism that goes with them I would have been disheartened and dejected about the 588 performance and would have struggled to identify the areas that needed working on. In no way does this approach reduce effort but
a well planned performance with good solid measures allows that athlete to learn so much from a performance.
Poor performances should never drop below that lower score mark, and I am not saying for one second that an athlete should be “over the moon” with this level, but they cannot, no matter how they achieved it be angry and fed up about the performance. An athlete who can measure well their performance will be able to learn and grow with each experience and cannot, even if they are tempted to, or those around them encourage them to, be unhappy with any performance that falls within their range. They may be dissatisfied by a lower end score but they should be able to identify the issues and move forward, similarly a top end score cannot be achieved week in, week out. For those of you that have read previous articles by myself or worked with me, you will know that responsibility and trust are fundamentally important to my approach in dealing with performance. I hope that you can see even in this short example of performance management how important these two aspects are.
When asked “is it worth it” even the dissatisfied athlete can say “yes, because I learnt something”.