Confidence and Athletics, the not-so-perfect connection
I grew up competing. Some of my earliest memories are in my backyard playing with and against my older siblings. I was hooked and quickly moved to organized sports. As my athletic career progressed, I was privileged and fortunate, enough to experience high school travel-baseball. This provided me the opportunity to travel the Midwest, playing in front of different coaches and scouts. However, I suddenly became aware of the gravity of my performance. This was an exciting and terrifying realization, exciting because of the friends and adventures, while, terrifying because now the outcome of my performance could affect my future. My stats could affect the schools that I could attend. The emotions I had regarding playing were amplified tenfold. But as I thought, “I was just showing passion, right?” I carried these thoughts and feelings with me for 3 years before I started unpacking them (but, that’s a story for a different day).
As an athlete you’re taught to pay attention to your stats: your ERA, your FG%, Shots on Goal, completion %, and so on. This is, typically, the main criteria which coaches use to separate the starters from the substitutes. Logically this makes sense, as you want your best players on the field/court/pitch. However, this does have its drawbacks as many athletes will learn to base their self-value on their stats. Again, I am not promoting that all sports should have participation trophies (in fact participation trophies aren’t very effective), but all individuals need to know that their value is not tied to a statistical analysis of their most recent game.
I always had the thought, if I play well, I am good right? Well sooner or later, I could never play good enough. I could always find something wrong with how I played, a missed pitch, a bad read, or 1 bad at-bat. I thought to myself “What do I do now”? So, I turned to the literature. Coincidentally, I was gifted a book all about Sports Psychology in action (The Mental Game of Baseball). I read it cover to cover, devouring every little detail (it became ritual for me to read it before the start of each season). I learned a lot of things, but today I want to highlight three. First, I needed to assess how my response, not the situation, affected me. I found that when I experienced a negative event, I became very tense. I would try to exert more effort on the next play. So, I keyed into the internal physical tension that I was experiencing.
Next, I learned how to manage that tension. Of the many skills I learned, the most effective, was, and still is breathwork. I say breath work and not breathing exercises because it is not a singular event or technique but an active process of using my breath to self-regulate. I won’t bore you with the science of why breath work (click here for the science) is so effective, but for me, it helped to decrease the muscle tension which I was experiencing, it grounded me in the present moment and gave me something else to focus on.
Finally, I turned to my support system. I realized that even though I couldn’t give myself the compassion that I needed at that time, I could ask my friends and family to support me while I worked on it. At first, I struggled to hear the praise they offered. The “You did so good”s felt disingenuous. Instead of asking them to change their comments, I challenged myself to find a nugget of truth in their comments. So, I started saying to myself, I didn’t get a hit AND I had a good play in the field. And when I couldn’t find anything good in the game, I would tell myself that I can have one bad game AND I am not a bad player.
I will be forever grateful for the skills and experiences I had while playing sports (even though they weren’t always fun/happy). I learned many lessons beyond the three I spoke about today, but whenever I find myself in a stressful situation, I immediately take a slow and controlled breath. And, I constantly go to my support system in times of need. It has been 4 years since I last played competitive baseball, AND these skills will always be with me.