On Self-Belief, Self-Sabotage and Empathy

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EsaaI spent a very happy day last month at the English Schools Athletics Association championships in Birmingham. We went because a family member was competing for his county, and since it was on our doorstep we could go along to support him, but once there we made a day of it, and I found myself learning quite a lot about performance psychology.

The thing about sports at this level - i.e. the best in the country, but not yet fully mature - is that you see a lot of technically very able performances, but the mental and emotional control displayed by professional athletes is not yet fully developed. It makes you realise how much high-level achievement is governed not only by what someone can achieve, but also what they will allow themselves to achieve.

During the afternoon, two high jump competitions (intermediate girls' and boys') gave a chance for close observation of the relationship between body language and success or failure. As the competition wore on, I found that you could pretty much always tell if an athlete was going to succeed in a jump during their run-up. 'I'm going to nail this,' or 'I'm not going to make it,' was somehow visible through the way they moved.

Indeed, almost as often you could see whether a competitor believed they were going to succeed in their body language as they prepared to start their run-up. Just occasionally the question seemed open (though it often then resolved itself as they ran), but you could usually see the athlete's prediction in the set of their shoulders.

And these predictions were frighteningly accurate. When the competitor looked like they expected to succeed, they did; when they looked like they expected to fail, they did.

Now the title of this post makes it look like the message here is about how you have to believe in yourself in order to succeed. And, while that is one conclusion to draw, it's also important to note that self-belief is not something that happens in a vacuum. These competitors were basing their beliefs on all kinds of information not available to spectators, not least their previous achievements. So their expectations may have been entirely rational.

But these expectations were also constraining what they could achieve. The structure of the high jump competition is such that you necessarily get increasing levels of failure as you go through, which means you keep seeing that cusp as people transition from what they know they can do through what they might be able to do to what they definitely can't do. And it was clearly the ones who managed this cusp the best who out-performed themselves.

Interestingly, in both competitions there was a competitor who had a conspicuous early fail who went on to do very well indeed (eventually placing 1st and 5th respectively). And these became two of the hardest athletes to read as the contests went on; it was as if they were able to hold the future open as a space to jump into rather than pre-judging themselves.

I don't know if the early difficulties were implicated at all in this - it may have helped develop a 'nothing to lose' narrative, or maybe just dissociated no-jumps from the expectation of imminent elimination. It does resonate with experiences I had in the years recovering from a major performance nerves problem when a near-disaster at the start of a performance had the effect of settling me down for the rest of it.

The other thing worth noting from the day's spectatorship is how I was able to draw all these inferences. People are very transparent if you stop and pay close attention to them. In particular, people who are very focused on doing something lose all self-consciousness, and then their state of being shines through.

This is a useful reminder to performers: whatever is in your head as you perform is completely accessible to the audience. They are there to pay attention, and their empathy will put them in the same place, mentally and emotionally, as you are. That is why you want to be focused on musical content rather than technical detail in performance.

It is also a useful reminder to conductors and teachers. If we open up our attention, there is so much information available about how our singers are doing just from how they hold themselves. Confidence, confusion, anxiety, eagerness, distraction, concentration - all there to be read. Let's not waste that information.

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