By Doug Jowdy, Ph.D.
Former Team Psychologist for U.S. Speed Skating
There are many characteristics of someone who is highly competitive. Some of these characteristics include perfectionism, being self-critical, compulsive, obsessive, high expectations, unrealistic standards, always looking at what you didn’t do versus what you did do, never being satisfied and only having fun when winning. These are the major ones. The one I want to focus on as something that will undermine your confidence is always looking at what you didn’t do versus what you did do. Sometimes we are unaware of the fact we even do this. But the negative impact this tendency has on confidence is profound.
Just think about it. You have had a great day at practice. The coach tells you so and you even get positive feedback from teammates for being awesome. But you hang onto the three turnovers you made. Yes, a few mistakes in the entire practice and that is what you focus on. Giving the mistakes so much power will override all the positive stuff. The negative just has a tendency to do that. It is called the “negativity bias” in psychology, and there are decades of research supporting the fact small negative experiences can wipe out the positive (Google “negativity bias”). And when it comes to confidence, we need all the positive experiences we can get. If you have a strong tendency to undermine yourself by focusing on the negative your confidence will suffer.
I will tell a story to show you how powerful it can be. I work with several ultra marathon runners. They are highly competitive and intense. One in particular came in to tell me about a training run up in the mountains. He shared that about halfway through a 6 hour run he encountered a mountain lion. As the terror surged through his veins he stopped dead in his tracks. He stood still and thought about whether to run, but he decided to be still and wait. After about 10 minutes the lion went on her way. Relieved but now full of adrenalin, he finished the run, but not in the time he wanted because of having to wait. When telling me the story this runner focused on how he did not achieve his goal as opposed to the fact he was still alive and finished the run. Finishing the run in pretty good time did not register or carry much weight. It was a classic example of the negativity bias. So of course, I pointed this out and suggested he spend some time celebrating the fact he was still alive and got to see Mother Nature at her best.
We all do this from time to time – focus on the negative more than the positive. Although simple but not easy, the take away is to celebrate your “victories” and let the “defeats” go. Yes, just let the fact you turned the ball over go by the wayside. Or be happy with a B+ on a test when you expected an A. Accept you are human and will make mistakes. Just look at some pro athletes in the finals. Are they flawless? Far from it! Sport provides you an opportunity to learn about yourself and grow as a person. By being more forgiving and embracing your success and not sabotaging it by seeing what you didn’t do will benefit you on and off the field.
Be in touch if you would like to learn more about sport psychology and enhancing your performance on or off the field.