(This blog was written on the 15th of December 2011 in response to an article in USAToday, ‘Building Champions’. The paper was of that day.)
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a Healthy Sense of Self in reaching the top level in athletics. Practice (and training) makes perfect; but over-training leads to compulsion, which in the case of a sports-oriented person, can mean “dependency on the outcome of the activity for one’s Sense of Self.”
How does one recognize this situation when it is happening? How do we identify the battle going on inside the sports person that is comparable to a fight or flight situation and perceived by them as a matter of life or death?
Meet Steve Chen. He was the best athlete of his senior high school year. He was so good a student athlete, he was invited to attend an Ivy League University. After a year of exploration and adjustment Steve found out that he wasn’t the only athlete excelling and during his sophomore year he had to continuously make extra efforts to stand out in the same way he used to in high school.
He started the year strong, showing good results, but pretty soon his grades were dropping. He had a hard time focusing on his academic work. The few friends he had been able to make at the university increasingly opted to leave him alone as Steve wasn’t really interested in what the other boys liked to do. Even “girls” couldn’t hold his attention for very long. What was going on with Steve? What had happened to our bright and shiny athlete who was accustomed to everybody liking him and to being put on a pedestal?
Steve was in agony. He couldn’t sleep well. Some nights he wasn’t able to sleep before the lights of dawn would pierce unforgivingly through his student room window. He would drag himself out of bed to the early morning-training session and fall asleep during his lectures. He would pretend to having partied all night but no one knew with whom. Steve avoided writing home as he had no great successes to report. He felt terrible and had no clue as to what was going on.
Let me explain. There are two types of people. There are those who have a healthy Sense of Self and there are those with a Lack of Sense of Self. The fortunate first group of people have what it takes to fully be themselves. This Sense of Self allows them to choose a path or career to their liking and to do what needs to be done. They are able to focus on the things they want to achieve and do what needs to be done. The odds that they are successful in some way are very good.
Then there is the more problematic group of people who are dependent on th outcome of their achievements or on what other people think of them. Due to the lack of a Natural Sense of Self they become dependent on a Substitute Sense of Self. This means that they compulsively are driven to reaching a state of feeling good about themselves.
Whatever they do, their job or field of interest is not the end goal, but merely a vehicle to reach their Substitute Sense of Self, that feeling of “feel-good-about-themselves.” It is for them a sort of confirmation that “they ARE” (being seen and heard, visible).
For them doing-what-they-do is a “performance.” Their actions and activities are no more than a possibility to score on the imaginary scale of credit points that leads to a “feel-good-about-self- state of mind.” Their ultimate motivation is about finally living up to the self-imposed conditions that at some point in their lives they perceived to be a solution to a problem they had. Their problem was not being seen and heard by their caregiver (mother or father) and it mattered most of all to them.
Whatever they do really has nothing to do with what seems to be the obvious goal. It is not about playing sports because they enjoy it or because it makes them good money. These men and women do what they do because they are highly dependent on the outcome for a “feel-good-about-self- as a Substitute Sense of Self.”
When this is not recognized as a problematic behavior and addressed appropriately, it becomes a vicious circle–causing a person to be the slave to his conditions and he skips his own life all together.
For Steve being an athlete was merely a vehicle for his addiction. He used athletic accomplishment to earn a “feel-good-about- self -as a substitute sense of self.” It wasn’t a conscious choice as he wasn’t even aware of this condition. And where did this drive to perform to feel good about himself come from? The root cause was found in the way he was brought up. So much depended on whether he had received the essential building blocks for developing a healthy sense of self and he hadn’t.