Self-Insight to Enhance Athletic Performance:
Behavioral Assessment as a Developmental Tool
Enshrined above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi reads, “Above all else, know thyself”. Considering that Apollo was the Greek god associated with great feats of athleticism, one can’t help but consider the role self-awareness contributes to athletic performance. In my experience as a professional athlete, the greatest performers tended to exhibit high levels of self-awareness in many facets of their life:
- their physical and mental experience,
- understanding training and recovery needs,
- knowing the strengths and weaknesses of their skill set, and:
- perhaps most importantly, the ability to accurately evaluate their own performance.
Research suggests that this is more than a passing observation, and athletes who possess a clear understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are inclined to report less stress and greater resilience than other athletes (Cowden & Meyer-Weitz, 2016). The connection between self-insight and better performance appears to come in the form of mental toughness. Self-aware athletes are mentally tougher, being able to maintain performance levels during adversity, perceive pressure as a challenge and a catalyst for prospering, and maintain emotional, cognitive and behavioral control despite situational stressors (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2007).
Clearly, the quote placed above Apollo’s temple was not put there by mistake.
Despite the remarkable connections between increased self-awareness and performance, it remains as one of the most underutilized strategies in athlete development. Most athletic training and development models focus on aspects of the athlete we can see (the physical) with little energy invested into fostering the dimensions of the athlete that we cannot see (the cognitive and emotional). Yet failing to acknowledge and develop these vital components of an athlete’s experience can negatively impact performance and the acclimation of that athlete’s full potential. One of the drawbacks to evaluating and developing the “unseen” aspects of the athlete is the difficulty measuring and assessing them: it is much easier to use a stopwatch than an MMPI-2!
However, investing in a comprehensive behavioral analysis assessment process can pay huge dividends. Athletes can better understand fundamental patterns of thought and behavior and enhance the development of self-insight, which has been shown to fuel “next level” performance.
UNDERSTANDING FUNDAMENTAL BEHAVIORAL AND THOUGHT PATTERNS
At Game Change, self-insight development begins with the identification and evaluation of one’s underlying behavioral preferences. Considered our “behavioral DNA”, behavioral tendencies are the product of various interactions in our biopsychosocial development. Through biological and environmental experience, certain behavioral dynamics come more natural than others. That is not to say that we are incapable of those behavioral dynamics that are inherently unfamiliar to us, but rather those behaviors simply require a greater input of energy to manifest since they go against our preferential behavioral grain.
It is harder for an individual who has grown with a value on commitment and discipline to change a game plan than it is for an individual whose upbringing encouraged innovation and finding new ways to get results.
In essence the challenge becomes, ‘Tried and true vs. out with the old in with the new’. This example is incredibly generalized, but adequately demonstrates how fundamental behavioral patterns may be difficult to overcome. It is not to say that tried and true could not adopt the new, but rather, seeing the path forward in this way will require effort and development. For athletes, the rubber meets the road when evaluating how productive or counterproductive one’s behavioral style and tendencies are in relation to the desire to achieve their athletic goals.
IDENTIFYING STRENGTHS AND GAPS
Highly successful individuals within a given context (sport, business, health services, etc.) behave fundamentally different than average and marginal performers in their fields (Cash & Lehman, 2014). That is, they demonstrate a behavioral profile that allows many of the duties/behaviors of their role to be performed with little resistance or psychic energy invested. Along with the accumulation of necessary skills and experiences, highly successful individuals swim with the behavioral current of their role, while average and marginal performers tend to have to fight the waves more frequently. For athletes, this is no different. Gaining insight into how one’s behavioral profile aligns with high performing athletes can bring awareness to strengths and areas that may require more developmental attention over time. Although some may hesitate at the prospect of such evaluations, it can truly be a validating experience that can bring awareness to and confidence in an athlete’s strengths while effectively delineating areas of developmental focus.
We often see what we want to see, whether it’s there or not. It is true that some distorted perceptual and cognitive tendencies can have great value in sport (think of the perfectionist gymnast), but often such ways of thinking can stifle progress and handicap performance (again, think of the perfectionist gymnast). Indeed, how we see ourselves in the world is largely confirmed through our behavioral style and preferences. With greater awareness to fundamental behavioral and cognitive tendencies, athletes can better attribute successes and failures more accurately and factually. This awareness can facilitate the shedding of an athlete’s propensity for excess self-criticism, self-doubt, and fear of success and failure.
Using behavioral assessment can be an incredibly valuable athletic tool not only for athlete development but also performance. Behavioral analysis provides an athlete with the opportunity to engage in self-reflective explorations that will foster the recognition of both successful and less effective behavioral patterns and how those relate to their goals in sport and life. The return on this investment is greater self-insight that fosters resilience, stress tolerance, and most importantly, enhanced performance. Far too often an athlete’s greatest opponent is themselves, and the development of self-insight brings the opportunity to turn an adversary into a very valuable teammate.
“… today is your victory over yourself of yesterday, tomorrow is your victory over lesser men… There is nothing outside yourself that can enable you to get better, stronger, richer, or smarter. Everything is within. Seek nothing outside yourself ”
Cash, L. & Lehman, P. A. (2014). Pathfinder Career System: Career Success, Practitioner Manual: Interpreting Career Success Results. Pathfinder Career System Inc: Canada.
Cowden, R. G., & Meyer-Weitz, A. (2016). Self-reflection and self-insight predict resilience and stress in competitive tennis. Social Behavior and Personality, 44(7), 1133-1149. doi:http://dx.doi.org.library.capella.edu/10.2224/sbp.2016.44.7.1133
Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2007). A framework of mental toughness in the World’s best performers. The Sport Psychologist, 21(2), 243-264. doi:10.1123/tsp.21.2.243
Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes. Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes. Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.