As a coach, there is nothing more heart breaking than the prodigiously talented athlete who fails to realise their potential.
Sadly, this is quite common in elite sport. Most possess ability, but few become champions. Many are traded, cut or quit before their time, not because they age, but because they fail to live up to the promise they showed.
This article explores the hidden influences that suppress ability in sport in order to identify common causes, while offering clues on how to help under performing athletes perform to their potential.
Warning. Some of the themes and ideas within this article could be uncomfortable or even controversial for some. It is not my intention create discomfort, I only aim to create change. Though I do recognise often the two go hand in hand.
Also, I acknowledge there are others much more skilled than me in dealing with the issues I discuss, I do not to profess to know all the answers, I only wish to bring these issues to light so that they might be better addressed than at present.
How Mediocre Athletes Become Masters
Before Rodger Federer became ‘Rodger Federer’ many (including himself) feared he would squander his talent for tennis. His inability to control his emotions created an inconsistency that stifled his success for almost four years after he turned pro.
Fast forward to the present day and Federer is one of the all time greats, no other man has won more grand slams in the history of the sport, and very few athletes have earned the same degree of universal respect.
To the outside observer, Federer’s rapid rise to prominence may have been baffling, but to insiders there was a defining moment when Rodger finally ‘got it’, and the pieces of the puzzle to finally came together.
In the first round of the Hamburg Masters on the 14th of May 2001, Federer was defeated by Franco Squillari 6-3, 6-4 in the first round. It was not the match, but what occurred afterward that changed everything.
Frustrated at losing another match to an opponent with nowhere near the same ability, Federer snapped, smashing his racquet on the umpires chair. He felt so embarrassed at his behaviour that he immediately made a commitment to change his attitude.
Almost instantly, he began to win matches and within the next two months, made the quarterfinals of two Grand slams, he also beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. It was the beginning of a dominance that may never be matched in the sport.
Federer’s story, points to a truism mostly overlooked in sport. Athletes, who suddenly achieve breakout success after years of mediocrity, rarely do so by acquiring new abilities. Liberating latent ability is the fastest way to improve performance in sport.
Most elite athletes have ability. Ability by itself does not equal success.
Most elite athletes work hard. Hard work by itself does not equal success.
Champions like Federer become so because they learn to access more of their ability more consistently than others. The champion’s bad game is not that dissimilar to their good game.
What Stops Athletes Accessing Their Ability.
Many athletes grow up in the spotlight, feeling their way through an unforgiving, unrelenting world that watches and judges their every move. For these athletes, consistency often comes with self-awareness and maturity.
But what of those who never seem to live up to their potential?
How can we understand and explain the ultimate failure of athletes who showed great promise, experienced a level of success and teased us with their talent, but in the end will only be remembered as athletes who ‘could have been’ anything.
For every Rodger Federer, there are plenty of Marat Safins.
So what makes the difference?
Secondary gain is a term psychologists use to explain the unconscious motives behind behaviour that might best be described as ‘self sabotage’. This explains why people often act in ways that ensure the complete opposite of what they appear to want.
Secondary gain explains why the morbidly obese man never loses weight (being heavy makes him feel safer, more insulated from the world). Or why the chronically ill person lurches from one condition to another (Being sick is their way of drawing support from others, because they struggle to ask for it).
Usually these behaviours are unconscious. The obese man points to ‘genetics’, while the ill person is forever ‘run down’ or ‘stressed’. Rarely if ever would they say, ‘oh being this way helps me avoid other unwanted circumstances’.
In sport, secondary gain robs athletes of the power to fully express their ability with any consistency or control. Understanding secondary gain can help us to unravel the mystery of those shooting stars that burn all too briefly.
So what drives secondary gain?
Fear, guilt and shame are the major driving forces behind secondary gain. Fear is about identity, guilt is about belonging, and shame is about approval. Though each of these emotions has different causes, all cause the same outcome.
When doubt clouds the mind, it can be hard to focus on one’s task. Ambiguity is the enemy of progress, and the distracted mind is rarely conducive to performance. If left unchecked, doubt can curtail careers.
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Kerry Spackman explains the effect of unconscious emotions such as fear, guilt and shame, by comparing the athlete struggling with secondary gain to the rower who’s rudder is stuck to one side.
The rower can row as hard and as much as he likes, but ultimately effort counts for little, he will continue to go in circles. The only way to move forward is to confront and address the limiting factors beneath the surface.
In the same way a pipe dramatically increases its output when a leak is found and plugged, the athlete dealing with doubt often instantly improves their performance when the causes of doubt are understood and addressed.
In order to effectively plug the gap, we must learn to recognise how fear, guilt and shame drive secondary gain, and how these emotions affect athletes. In part two of this article, we will explore these three ‘brilliance blockers’ and discuss why and how they stifle success in sport.