Comparison can be a tragic thought process. We currently live in a world of social media where images and videos are pouring out of every crevice at a rapid pace. When we start to get into the habit of comparing ourselves to someone else, the result can be a false evaluation of our success. Many people have an idol of some sort growing up; perhaps this idol is the reason you participate in your sport today. A common mistake we make as beginners is relating our success in sport to what an elite athlete can do. We soon realize this is an inappropriate evaluation process.
It is not always apparent that we cannot start as a novice and expect to be a professional. Instead we decide to pick on somebody our own size and choose a more “suitable” option; perhaps a teammate or opponent whose been training for about the same amount of time and has similar numbers in terms of strength.
Perfect right? No, wrong again! This is also inaccurate! It's actually worse than comparing ourselves to someone we clearly know is on a different level all together. Here is why... We fail to realize using such a tactic as means of motivation is the worst way to achieve a goal.
Instead you wind up stripping yourself of the opportunity to feel good about yourself. It is not because an extrinsic means of motivation is ‘bad’ [Although, research has identified athletes who exemplify intrinsic motivation may be the greater determinant of achieving success in sports when compared to those who are extrinsically motivated, statistically speaking, especially at the elite level (Hardy, Jones & Gould 1996 & 2003; Mahoney et al., 1987) We will dive more into that topic at another time] rather, it is due to the fact that we create a ceiling for our potential. Let me explain...
By stating phrases such as "I can't imagine being like that” when comparing ones self to another, you might as well just take a seat and save yourself the time and heartache of what is to come.
We all have self-limiting feelings, which determine how far we will go. It is basically our self-image driven thoughts, in which we limit our expectations. Nothing more and nothing less. No one can truly steer your thought pattern when saying, “that’s impossible." It is you who allows him or her to do so.
You have the power to determine how far you will go, and I get it... that is an incredibly scary concept! No one wants that kind of commitment; everyone wants to point a finger or two or blame the situation on genetics or some other excuse. Take pride in all my actions? Admit I am responsible for my own actions? No thanks, I’ll pass.
This becomes a vicious circle of incomplete development as a human and puts a false sense of pride in satisfaction of mediocre achievement. Most of us do not achieve a fraction of our potential.
Few athletes view themselves without reference to the value attributed to them by society. Feldenkrais (1972) proposed societies recognition and approval gives a sense of organic contentment. He states our individual aspirations and desires will arouse anxiety and remorse, in turn the individual seeks to suppress the urge to realize them. This is due to the internal criticism he or she will have placed on them by the doubters and idealists. Because let’s face it, the road to success is far from ideal.
When we compare, we fail to reach our inconceivable notions of greatness. We limit ourselves based on another person’s ability to do so.
Reaching is not enough. Those who exceed their potential must reach further. Stopping after greatness is perceived can be just as limiting as never getting there at all. We are not pre-destined for this greatness. Everyone should strive for higher standards. The difference is they create the concept in their mind, a simple commitment to a decision, and as time goes on habits are built, goals are set, and setbacks are inevitable.
This concept cannot be created unless it is first a repeated mental imagery of our own capability and none other than our own. This is the difference between doing the effecting outcome and being mediocre at best. It is a simple decision, a simple misconception, and we are all making it so complicated.
Comparison can be a tricky thing to beat because beautiful ideas have stemmed from another mind other than our own. This is one perspective on how society has formed - a cultivation of ideas, which built on top of one another. However, being able to differentiate comparison and inspiration are vital for success in our performance.
Let us switch gears and focus on a coach’s role. Achieving your potential as a coach is just as important, if not more so than as an athlete. Once you decide to be a coach you decide to use your acquired knowledge to influence another being, which you would like to see be successful.
Coaches must assess the abilities of their athletes and then decide to push further. This is not done by magic periodization schemes and squat cycles. Having good knowledge of technique and programming is just the start of coaching. Understanding how to speak to athletes and know what motivates them is the hard part. An athlete who does not respond to a coach will never achieve their full potential.
A coach sets the pace and creates the right environment for an athlete to excel. A coach who instills a base of confidence in the athlete will then see a spiral of positive effects to come, including higher lifts in both training and competition. If the athlete being coached is having a problem with constant comparison or negative self talk, consider using some mental skills training techniques to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive. By creating an atmosphere, in which the athlete is eager to perform daily mundane habits, a recipe for success is then made.
Weightlifting competitions are learning experiences, at which you can reflect on your training and assess whether you trained correctly to peak or not. They are not to be used as a comparison tool. The beauty of our sport, as can be applied to any, is the process and not the destination. Olympic weightlifting is about self -improvement. The basic misconception is that it is about competing against other lifters, when really it is about challenging yourself.
Your opponent is nothing more than a stationary barbell. The lifter who succeeds is the one who can stretch his or her imagination and believes in achieving what is pictured in their mind as possible. This may not be enough to win the class, but perhaps new personal records or overall performance, and that is the goal.
After reading this you may be confused on how to begin to incorporate this mindset into your training. Not many of us welcome change with open arms, because we are creatures of habit. Being creatures of habit can be beneficial once we learn to train our brains accordingly. A crucial role for the basal ganglia is in habit learning as well as a host of other related functions such as motor control and emotional functions (Seger & Spiering, 2011).
What many of us don’t realize is our brain does not distinguish good and bad habits, but we can take control of them. During “habit mode,” our brain activity shifts from the higher-thinking cerebral cortex to our more primitive-thinking basal ganglia. Neuroscientists have discovered our habits never really disappear after being encoded. When too many choices suddenly proliferate in our mind, we go with our habitual tendencies to solving a problem.
The learning process consists of a progression of simple steps leading to more complicated ones, just as if a beginner were to learn a snatch. Mental skills are qualities, which develop over time, just as our muscles do. We need to make simple changes, which become fixed habits, which then become encoded in our brain as a natural routine. We must transform our thought process on assessing our value as an athlete. This is the first of many steps and will spiral into the beginning of a successful athletic mind-set.
about the author
Dani Tocci is an eccentric individual whose primary goal is to cultivate a positive growth mindset with everyone she works with on both a sport consulting level and with training. Having a not so typical background with degrees in art and philosophy gives her an edge on her thought process. Dani is a competitive olympic weightlifter and has had the pleasure of working with national level athletes. Follow her on Instagram (@d_tocc) for all the happenings.
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Feldenkrias, M. (1972). Awareness Through Movement: Easy -to-Do Health Exercises to Improve Your Posture, Vision, Imagination, and Personal Awareness. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Hardy, L., Jones, G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding Psychological Preparation for Sport: Theory and Practice of Elite Performers. Wiley, Chichester.
Mahoney, M.; Gabriel, T.; Perkins, S. (1987) Psychological skills and exceptional athletic performance. The Sport Psychologist. 1:181-199.
Seger, C. A., & Spiering, B. J. (2011). A Critical Review of Habit Learning and the Basal Ganglia.
Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience