As 2022 comes to a close, feelings of excitement and fresh beginnings fill the minds of many. At the same time, so do feelings of remorse, worry, and the overarching question of “what could I have done better?
Reflection is good when used in a constructive way, yet holding on to past shortcomings, results, and outcomes can lead down a dangerous path; adopting a self-imposed identity based on one’s results and/or time in sport.
“If my identity is solely as an athlete, what happens when injury or retirement come about?,” Premier’s Dr. Matt Mikesell says. “If my identity is as a winner, what happens when I’m not winning?”
To the naked eye, the concept of an athlete tying their entire identity to sport may sound out there; after all, humans are complex and sport is just one portion of an individual’s life. Yet the reality is far from that.
With research from over 1,500 athletes, Premier’s Research and Analytics team found that just 26% of pro athletes were always able to set apart their self-worth from the outcome of practice or competition, compared to just 10% of high school athletes.
Those are startling numbers, yet sadly not surprising. Being an athlete in the 21st century comes with unprecedented challenges and the outcome often results in athletes feeling like their entire being is dictated by results on the playing field…regardless of level.
Letting go can seem nearly impossible at times, but the solution lies in reflection, incremental growth, and self-compassion.
Why Do We Tie Our Worth to Sport?
The correlation between self-worth and sport looks different for each athlete given their status and situation in life. Mikesell often works with athletes who struggle to separate the two because they’re in a time of transition or nearing retirement.
While the case for some athletes in high school, the struggle is often seen in collegiate student-athletes who are nearing the end of their athletic journey.
“(I often see that struggle) more in collegiate athletes than high schoolers because they have that many more years of sport under their belt,” Mikesell says. “That transition out of college isn’t just tough in sport, but life in general. Going from school and sports to a desk job where competitive sports are longer a part of the picture can be really difficult.”
The same can be said for professional or adult athletes nearing the end of their careers. While these athletes are just as human as anyone, their public perception has oftentimes been as someone who plays a sport…which can lead to difficult internal strain.
“If on the outside the identity looks like being a tennis or soccer player, what does it look like on the inside?,” Mikesell says. “That concept of what those around us think versus who we know we really are can be tough to grapple with.”
Regardless of level, separating self-worth and sport is often rooted in an immense care for results, rooted in perfectionism.
It’s not uncommon for athletes to be perfectionists. Strong attention to detail, hard work, and a zest for being the best are all traits that mold upstanding performers on the field, in the classroom, and society in general. Yet perfectionism has a dark side; a swell of disappointment, frustration, and anger crossed with a shot to one’s confidence when results are not met to a T.
Society knows perfectionists as individuals who strive for greatness in all aspects of life. Mikesell dives deeper into what many perfectionists feel, and what many experience that drives them to mesh their self-worth with results on the field.
“I think that perfectionism is less about I need to have a 4.0 GPA or I need to play perfect in my game, and more about the idea of If I perform athletically or academically a certain way, I’ll avoid these feelings of shame, embarrassment, and defeat.” Mikesell says. “Those are very real feelings, and that’s where the concept of self-worth comes in.”
That’s a tough pill to swallow, and one that results in athletes of all levels experiencing burnout, extreme pressure, and unfortunately, a fractured relationship with their sport.
Letting Go…How to Do It
Letting go is a phrase that transcends sport, it’s one that is valuable in life…yet it can mean something different for each person. For some it may be letting go of wins and losses to focus on process-oriented goals. For others it may mean letting go of a certain identity in a time of transition to untap new parts of their life.
For all, it’s not an overnight process, yet one that can begin with incremental steps each day.
For perfectionists, Mikesell encourages moving the needle each day, not tipping the entire scale.
“One of the things that I work on with athletes is shifting away from perfectionism and instead focusing on chasing excellence each day,” he says. “Rather than thinking in terms of wins and losses, think about moving the needle forward each day in small amounts.”
Don’t focus on outcomes and instead ask yourself the question “What am I adding?” each day. Mistakes and mishaps happen each day, but by focusing on incremental wins like personal care, learning new skills, and giving full effort, you’ll feel a sense of validation and improvement through the thick and thin.
After all, the journey to success takes time and you don’t want to peak today.
That requires self-compassion, something that is essential for all athletes when it comes to separating self-worth and outcomes on the field.
“Self-compassion is the key to being able to let go,” Mikesell says. “If we can’t have a glimpse of self-compassion after and during difficult outcomes, then how on earth are we supposed to be at our best in our next contest?”
Self-compassion can be compartmentalized into three types; self-kindness vs. self-judgment, acknowledgement of others going through similar situations, and being mindful of our feelings in moments of distress.
Practicing self-kindness instead of self-judgment is crucial in moments of adversity. Instead of getting down on yourself, engage in positive self-talk, applaud things within your control that you’ve done, and remind yourself that your mistakes do not define you. It’s also important to remember that what you’re feeling is human nature, and that many other athletes have experienced what you’re feeling…and if they haven’t they will at some point.
Finally it’s important to acknowledge the feelings that you’re experiencing. Be observant of how you feel so you know how to react in future situations. As Mikesell mentioned, identifying those moments where self-compassion is needed is critical because self-compassion allows athletes to reset, turn the page, and move on.
The concept of self-compassion may seem in opposition to the buck up, work through it mantra that is often associated with grit and resilience. The truth couldn’t be more opposite.
“We spend so much time focusing on resilience and grit, but what allows grit and resilience to be sustainable is when we lose, trip up and make mistakes,” Mikesell says. “Self-compassion in moments of turmoil is what fuels strong resilience and grit. A lot of people think that those two things butt heads, but you can’t have one without the other.”