Is there someone in your life who appears to be chronically unsuccessful? Who, despite apparent effort, just can’t seem to make progress toward his goals? This article, which highlights commonalities of performers who struggle, takes an unusual turn from the topics I normally address. Although I almost always prefer to emphasize what should be done as opposed to what should not, I feel these pitfalls are worth illuminating so that they can be avoided. This article is the second part of a series, which summarizes my observations following three years as a mental performance consultant. The first component, “What Makes The Best The Best,” explored the commonalities I’ve witnessed among those who consistently perform well. The final installment will cover effective and ineffective coaching strategies. So, grab your most objective internal looking glass and read on!
Is there someone in your environment who emanates an uncomfortable level of intensity? These are the athletes that arrive at a workout so nervous that they’re white as ghosts. These are the collaborators who sit down at a meeting notably tense and stern. Athletes with this energy often begin too fast, and burn out early. Similar others in different fields might interact too aggressively for the company or the moment, and without sensitivity. Regardless of the performance domain, these people will go home and review their actions obsessively. One rough practice or presentation stays under their skin for days.
More consistent performers realize that the rate of development of mastery inherently fluctuates. They don’t get unduly low after a disappointing race or training session, and they don’t get too high after a great one. This reflects the top performers’ ability to stay centered.
These are the athletes who push the pace on easy runs, who don’t allow for recovery periods after big races, and press on at full steam when feeling under the weather. These are the professionals who work eighteen-hour days, skip lunch, and miss vacations. Consistently successful performers respect the need for rest, and they rest with the same diligence as they train. Researchers have shown quality sleep to be related to faster reaction times, fewer errors, and longer careers. Great performers also listen to their bodies. If on the odd occasion they feel unwell, or they encounter an exceptional amount of stress, their workload is appropriately adjusted.
These are the performers, who despite an apparent devotion to the main elements of their craft, are inconsistent about attending to the details that support it. For athletes, stretching is sporadically completed, maintenance exercises are skipped, and commitment to diet and sleep fluctuates. The consistent athletes diligently attend to the details. They understand that excellence is the cumulative result of many quality acts carried out daily.
In his landmark study on the practices of national versus international level swimmers, researcher Daniel Chambliss found that the best swimmers were notably consistent with their attention to detail. In fact, the study is titled, “The Mundanity of Excellence,” to highlight the major role that consistent attention to detail played in the achievements of the best swimmers. Chambliss explains:
“superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.”
Although I’ve noticed that those who struggle often neglect the details, I’ve noticed that others are inappropriately rigid about them (or just some of them). These are the athletes who must complete their full workout despite the fact a lightning storm is upon them, or who insist on running that last mile in a training run despite the fact they’re limping. This is the executive that never misses a meeting, despite the fact that he is very ill. There is no room for adjustment in standards, or routine. Don’t misunderstand, the best performers are meticulous and committed, but there is flexibility in their approach. You know the phrase – those who bend never break – there’s truth to it.
I’ve noticed that some performers who struggle consistently exhibit a superior attitude. They arrive at practice with an aloof air about themselves. The best athletes just get on with their work. They don’t gossip or put down others; they chat with everyone regardless of ability; they don’t talk about themselves or their accomplishments much (if at all). Flagstaff is home to many Olympians, but unless you google their names you might never know, because if you meet them it will never come up in conversation.
Across performers who struggle, one mistake often leads to endless self-deprecation. Afterward, the mistake is then spoken of regularly with far more emphasis than it deserves. Psychologists have found that any action we attach emotion to is more likely to be remembered than something we remain neutral about. In addition, negative emotion is more memorable than positive emotion. In fact, I see this so often across athletes who struggle that I almost created a paragraph titled, “those who struggle repeat mistakes!” When you make a mistake try to respond objectively to it. For example, instead of berating yourself for “always” talking too fast at the start of a presentation, just remind yourself to speak more slowly the next time.
Within many performance domains, one’s individual result is often the prime focus. Still, the most consistent athletes understand the importance of positive group energy. They consider with care the company they keep, especially during training. They bring friendliness and appreciation, and they work with others of a comparable ability to help everyone improve.
Interpersonal relationships are one of the most powerful contributors to well-being. Most of the time, excellent performances occur when a performer is experiencing a generally high level of well-being. Therefore, interacting warmly with the people around you on a daily basis can enhance your daily performance, culminating in greater abilities over time.
Those who struggle make excuses for sub-par performances. They blame shoes, shorts, weather, other people, dinner, breakfast, lunch, lack of lunch, and so on. The trouble with placing blame inappropriately is that this distracts us from considering the real cause of a problem and therefore acting to remedy it. High performers hold themselves accountable for everything that is realistically under their control. They understand that ultimately they alone are responsible for their experience and performance. They calmly and objectively examine their weaknesses, develop a well-considered plan to strengthen it, and diligently, and un-dramatically carry out the plan.
The fact that outstanding performances are the culmination of years of work is an age - old understanding. Most performers accept this I believe, whether they are consistently successful or not. However, there is a difference I’ve observed between the thriving and the struggling: those struggling move on quickly from a new strategy or source of advice if they don’t experience large gains immediately. Just like one’s overall improvement trajectory, the effectiveness of some additions to training (some strength exercises, changes in coaching approach, mental performance techniques) gain effectiveness gradually over time. Consistently successful athletes appear to be very good at choosing which additions to patiently persist with, and which to reject after a few genuine, unsuccessful attempts.
This is an observation I made back in my days as a coach, and am noticing now again as a mental performance consultant. Struggling performers often seek experts who will tell them what they want to hear. Or, when they receive advice contrary to their preferences they try to extract what they want to hear from the expert. The best athletes choose their advisors carefully. Certainly, they ask questions, give feedback, and collaborate, but ultimately they trust the expert they have chosen to advise them in that aspect of their lives.
Did you see yourself in any of the commonalities of a struggling athlete? I did, and still do sometimes. We’re all only human, and all subject to weaknesses and errors. Wandering off course occasionally is a part of life. All of the harmful patterns listed above are changeable. The key is to stop when we realize we’re headed in the wrong direction, and then find our way back on track. Start by taking a deep breath, and recognizing that most of the time one practice or performance does not define you. Attend to the details you should, and allow yourself to be flexible when this makes sense. Remember, rest can be a powerful tool, as can warm relationships. When you struggle, consider what needs to be improved in your own skills, and seek expert help. Follow a trusted expert’s advice, and give their strategies time to work. I hope these points help someone find their way out of a problematic pattern. It’s possible for anyone to begin a new, successful one.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
We'll send you weekly emails with our latest insights and training for free, and we'll never send you ads or sponsored messages.