As athletes, every season holds one or several big competitions. It might be a cup final, the deciding game of a league competition, the national championships or once a season event. One such event is The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, due to be held on the Great Ouse at Ely on 4th April. And these events can sometimes feel so big, it’s hard to know how to perform well at them.
As a psychologist, I often come across athletes who feel they can only perform on the day if they feel good and their self-esteem is sky high. Historically, sports psychology has taught that high self-esteem and performance are so inextricably linked that performing well must be an impossibility unless our self-esteem is equally high. Yet research shows that the passion, started in the 1970’s, for believing that self-esteem would lead to good performance is not always based on the science.
It seems that self-esteem is in fact the amount of value we place on ourselves. It is a perception rather than reality. High self-esteem might refer to an accurate and justified balanced view of your worth as a person and of your success; but it might equally be over-stated and based on an unwarranted sense of superiority over others.
So, imagine you are in one of the Boat Race crews, preparing for the only race you will do this year. Surely you need to feel good?
Well the answer is no! It would make for a more enjoyable race – self-esteem is definitely linked to a feeling of happiness. But a far more important determinant of your performance will be the quality of your preparation, the execution of your skills and the amount of effort you are prepared to expend during the less than 20 minutes of the race.
In fact our sense of self-esteem can vary. Imagine that all the qualities about you and your successes/failures are like the titles on the books on the shelf of your personal library. Try this yourself. Take a piece of paper. On one side write down the top awful titles in your library of “you.” And on the other side, note down the top awesome titles in the library. Then take a step back and ask yourself – which ones represent the real you? Most people will probably answer, “It depends.”
Which is why a more enduring set of skills that enable you to perform at your best include:
· The ability to unhook from your thoughts and feelings, whether they mark you top of the class or put you down.
· Add to that the ability to stay in the moment and focus on what needs to be done – a mindful attention to the here and now.
· And finally have a clearly outlined plan of committed action that you are 10/10 likely to execute. It helps to share this out loud to at least one person who will hold you to account.
These are skills that, with practice, not only enhance the richness of your life, but also enable you to perform at your best when the pressure is on at the big event.