Olympic Sports Stars Suffer From Low Self-Esteem
In the past few days many people have been shocked to hear the news that 23 year old Rebecca Adlington is retiring from competitive swimming. Many people will wonder why, considering her age and success, and may wonder if it was as a result of negative comments on social networking sites such as Twitter.
The Telegraph was just one newspaper to publish the story and quoted Rebecca as saying “I felt old at 23… female swimming in general is getting younger and in loads of different events in London – the 100 breaststroke, the 400 medley – they were all 15 and 16-year-old girls who were winning. I certainly can’t compete with that. I’ve noticed over the years that I can’t do the same level of work as I used to be able to do and I need a lot more rest and recovery”.
She is among many sports stars, including Olympic Gold winning Victoria Pendleton and Dame Kelly Holmes, who have publically admitted to suffering with very low self-esteem at some time in their careers. Many people cannot understand how these people, who we often admire and look up to, could lack any self-belief at all. So why do they, and how can the Thrive programme help people to achieve sporting success and maintain a high level of self-esteem even in challenging times?
Firstly we need to ask ‘what is self-esteem’?
Self-esteem is a term that is used to reflect a person’s overall emotional perception of his or her own worth; essentially, their own judgement of themselves.
Our level of self-esteem fluctuates over time. By the time people reach adulthood they have had millions of experiences that combine to form their beliefs about who they are and their view of themselves.
However, due to confirmation bias (we only see things that fit in with a certain belief system), how a person views themselves can become quite distorted. For people who have a mostly external ‘locus of control’ (lack of internal belief in their own ability) their self-esteem can fluctuate a great deal as how they see themselves is based largely on the things that happen to them. So, for instance, a football player only feels good if he scores a goal, or a rower’s self-esteem plummets if he loses a race.
Self Esteem and Perfectionism
Everyone knows somebody who calls themselves a perfectionist – maybe you do this yourself!
Most perfectionists are actually running away from feelings of being worthless or not good enough. Because of this, they set themselves very high standards and when they fail to meet these standards they become highly self-critical, reinforcing the very feelings they were trying to avoid in the first place.
Another trait that perfectionists exhibit is dismissing success and achievements, meaning they are always moving the goalposts and unable to build on their self-esteem.
The link between social anxiety, self-esteem and locus of control.
Sports people with an external locus of control get validation externally from their peers and are particularly sensitive to judgment from others (which is indicative of some social anxiety). This has been well documented in the press, especially since the use of Twitter has become more widespread. In an article by NBC Sports in June 2012 Rebecca Adlington said that she was not using Twitter for a while as she
was experiencing bullying; “the messages of support are amazing but you do have the chance of someone saying something that is going to be annoying”. She went on to explain “you don’t want that added stress.”
Because of their externality in some areas, our sports stars are sometimes unable to develop and maintain a consistent high level of self-esteem. This could be one reason why, in many sports, it is common for people to loose resiliency and optimism and quit.
How athletes can become more resilient and maintain high levels of self-esteem
Because of the nature of competitive sport many sports people set very high standards then berate themselves if don’t reach all of them; being a perfectionist is just another way they can beat themselves up.
Also, many athletes do not process achievements properly, again due to perfectionism and social anxiety (not wanting to appear egotistical), and this also has a negative impact on self-esteem.
It is well known that many athletes are very superstitious, or frequently look at their coach for reassurance before, during or after competition, which are two indicators of an external locus of control.
Rob Kelly’s Thrive Programme helps people to develop an internal locus of control, improve self-esteem and reduce social anxiety. Thrive teaches a person about their personality and thinking styles in order to gain much needed self-insight.
Thrive helps the individual to become internal, giving them belief that, no matter what the challenge, they will handle it and have the skills within themselves to cope without needing external validation. This greatly strengthens their self-esteem and helps to stop them worrying about what others think of them which, in turn, lowers their social anxiety.
Many people from all walks of life, not just athletes, who aspire to be high achievers are immensely self-critical but are not aware they are! If they can become aware of doing something that is, ultimately, unhelpful they can stop doing it and build their self-esteem.
With Thrive, people are taught about unhelpful thinking styles and how to stop thinking in this way. Thrive teaches the person about their inner voice and how self-talk can be changed very easily to become empowering and positive.
Working with a Thrive Consultant can help sports people achieve the belief, certainty and confidence to be a winner through a series of between 6 and 8 sessions. For more information visit www.thriveprogramme.org and for a copy of the Thrive book visit www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0096997LE.
Thrive Consultant and Blogger