It’s all too easy to understand why harsh criticism from coaches and others hurt an athlete’s confidence and performance. But it can be damaging and downright devastating when it comes from within the athlete’s own mind. Fortunately, you can very easily silence the external critics by ghosting practise or not answering your phone, but this is near impossible when your thoughts are the ones that are constantly berating you. You don’t need to be a pro athlete either. You could miss benching that 220lb you’ve been trying to hit, flake out on the final set of an interval running session or snooze right through your alarm. Everyone has things they’d like to do better, and the first step toward fixing this is identifying what the problem actually is. You’ll be able to diagnose self-criticism as the things you say to yourself that may sound like a parent or that annoying person from your past, or simply your own inner critic that’s serving up scathing reviews of the blockbuster movie that is your life. It is a form of self-talk, just not the good kind. It creates stress, lowers self-esteem, and significantly limits your thinking. It’s perfectly normal to hear this kind of voice, but when it’s >all you hear that’s when it becomes a problem, but a problem you can take charge because it is possible to put a sock in that voice.
Athletes are particularly vulnerable to self-criticism. Some camps have thought that a healthy dose of self-criticism could increase performance, but science says otherwise. According to a paper in the >Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, self-criticism is negatively related to goal progress among athletes. So beating yourself up because of a tiny failure is only going to lead to more failure – not better performance. What’s more, any athlete who is his own worst critic is vulnerable to perfectionism. That’s a good thing, right? Not at all, this mindset might be viewed by some in a positive light, meaning that the type of athlete who pushes to be perfect and nothing less can reach higher if nothing is ever good enough, but again there is no data to back this up. Harsh self-criticism becomes an endless loop of negative self-talk that pulls an athlete downwards, instead of lifting their performance to a new level. Savage self-criticism never pushes an athlete toward excellence. When the goal becomes perfection, you can very easily lose sight of the main objective in your sport.
Even professional athletes can be highly self-critical in a public space. Washington Redskins’ wide receiver Cam Sims was a 2018 undrafted rookie free agent out of the University of Alabama and signed by the Redskins prior to training camp last year. Unfortunately, an injury ended his season. Now Sims is battling just to make the 2019 squad. Sims told NBC Sports Washington: “I don’t know, let’s say I drop a pass, I think my whole day is bad. If I catch a hundred balls and I drop that one pass, I say my whole day is bad … They say I’m doing good but I don’t really pay attention to it. Like right now, I’d go back into the locker room and say, Man, I’m still having a bad camp.” That is some serious negative self-talk that is unlikely to yield a positive outcome for most athletes.
The fix to this negative feedback loop could be to punch yourself hard in the kidneys to silence the nagging. Or you could think of yourself as an animal because the shark never questions itself, it’s too busy swimming at top speed and biting off fish faces to care what others think. Okay, so there is a more human-relevant solution that’s easy enough to employ because >The Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology says that there is a serious antidote to self-criticism and it comes in the form of self-compassion. Athletes can exercise self-compassion in a few ways that are very effective at making that internal voice hoarse. First off you need to treat yourself with kindness you would give to a good friend who is struggling. Understand that all humans are flawed, and acknowledge your thoughts, but resist getting swept away in them. Look at your situation from an objective perspective and accept some things are beyond your control. You can take this one step further by being objective when evaluating your performance. To achieve this, you need to employ the three components of objectivity:
- Give Credit
What did you do well? You will always find some positive takeaways from every performance. Give yourself credit for those successes – even minor ones.
- Misses Have Meaning
What didn’t go well? This is where you need to refrain from berating and beating yourself up and look at your performance through a coach’s eye.
- Have a Plan
What do you need to do to improve? Knowing what you did wrong is no help to you if you don’t plan to improve and change those aspects of your game.
The take home message? You don’t need to be demanding and crazy critical of yourself to improve your game. You just need a plan for improvement. Ask yourself: “What would the most positive coach or teammate tell me in this moment?” This question will help you step outside of the emotion and be more objective with your game so you’re always improving mentally which will have a positive force on your outcomes.