It takes “two” to perform
May 2nd, 2017

Dan Vickerman, the Australian rugby player and former Cape Town boy recently chose to take his life – a tragedy of epic proportions. I cannot begin to understand what was going through his mind and the depths of depression he may have been feeling. It really is sad. What this did raise for me is the importance of realizing that in the world of elite sport (read: in the limelight often) sportsmen and women have to be encouraged to realize that who they are and what they do are different things. In short, you have the player and you have the performer, and those two identities need to be boundaried at all costs!

Score runs, tries, goals or points and you feel top of the world and see yourself as worthy. Logically when we read that we can see how skewed that thinking is. In reality we know that that is often the case. Of course the opposite is also true – take away all those runs, tries and goals and people can feel inferior and experience huge dips in self-esteem. This world view is clearly very problematic. Players begin to attach their self-worth and even their identity to what they do (play sport) rather than who they are (their attributes and values).

I have spent many coaching sessions trying to help athletes discern between the two because in the absence of this emotional rollercoasters are bound to ensue and performance dips will become par for the course. Values and attributes are stable and controllable, performances are not. It is why in modern thinking parents are encouraged to praise effort rather than performance (one of being controllable and the other not).

I remember having a conversation with former Protea coach (and member of The Leading Conversation) Eric Simons about the difference between ‘needing’ to win and ‘wanting’ to win. Contrary to popular belief we both agreed that the ‘needers’ will perform sub-optimally over the long term because they attach their identity to success and thus are so open to being adversely affected by pressure. There is nothing wrong with wanting to succeed due to your drive for progress, self-satisfaction or even wealth. Needing to succeed in order to gain status or feelings of self-worth is far more dangerous because success in sport is very often out of your control. Thus any setbacks will be taken for more harshly by someone who blurs the lines between the player and the performer than by the person who goes home after a match knowing that they are the same person despite what happened during the match that day.

Leaders, parents and coaches should be thinking how to reinforce this idea at all times so that the players themselves can perform under pressure without having the extra burden of having to worry about their own self-worth. It is hard to enough to succeed anyway, let’s try not to make it harder than it needs to be.