Social comparison is important to understand and address because it happens frequently in sports, draws focus away from your ability to perform, and uses your energy in a non-facilitative way.
What is Social Comparison?
Social comparison is comparing yourself to others. In a sports setting this usually means competitors and teammates. It includes comparing yourself to others by rank, rating, place, time, and/or technique. It may happen before, during, or after competition.
Before competition. Many of my clients check rankings daily. They also watch videos of their competitors. When they get to the event venue, many athletes compare themselves to other competitors based on how they look.
During competition. Athletes compare times, place, and physical appearance. When they see people who they think are better than them, they long to be that other person. When they see people who are not as good as them, they think they should beat that person. Regardless of whether this is true or not, it is very black and white thinking, and that can get us into trouble. They end up shutting down when they compete against competitors they think are better than them and playing down to those they think they should beat. Social comparison causes many athletes to stop playing ‘their game.’
After competition. Athletes compare themselves with their competitors, particularly those athletes that beat them during a competition. Post-competition is usually when athletes start to think about their results and their competitors’ results in the following ways: “Luck wasn’t on my side today,” or “I wasn’t prepared enough.”
Cons of Social Comparison
Social comparison is usually not a good thing. Social comparison is discouraging and sets a performer up for failure. Humans are hardwired to think about the negative, and we can get stuck in it.
Social comparison pulls athletes out of focusing on their performance and puts that energy into thinking about the person they are comparing themselves against. It is rarely realistic. Social comparison makes athletes think they want what the other person has even when it’s not realistic.
Social comparison tends to get athletes stuck on the outcome. Focused on social comparison, an athlete is much more likely to fantasize about beating the person they are comparing themselves to. This pulls them out of their competition strategy and leaves them distracted thinking about the outcome.
Pros of Social Comparison
There can be pros to social comparison, but it takes a mentally strong athlete to use social comparison in a positive way. Social comparison can push an athlete to be better. The athlete must focus on why they are doing what they are doing and what their goal is.
When an athlete can use social comparison to drive performance, it can help an athlete stay focused on their performance, be more realistic, and be present in the process. Here’s how to channel the pros of social comparison:
Stay focused on what you need to do. That gives you the best chance of performing the way you want to perform. It allows you the ability to utilize all your practice or training. It eliminates black and white thinking.
Be realistic with your goals. If you can realistically beat someone, it’ll happen by staying focused on your game plan. Be realistic about where the person you are comparing yourself to is in relation to you. Most of the time you don’t really know what is going on with your competitors and are making snap judgements based on stats or appearance.
Stay present and focused on your process goals. What process should you be focused on that’ll get you to the outcome you desire? Competition is the time to focus on YOU. You’ve spent a lot of time practicing, and you want to be able to fully utilize your practice by focusing on yourself.
The points I’ve brought up often produce challenges for athletes but can also be seen as positives when used correctly. Using social comparison as a driving force behind your training and competition is possible but only when done the right way. Mental skills training gives you the opportunity to deal with social comparison in a different way.