A lot of the time, as athletes we hear “You need to turn your want into a must” and have this glorified story that those athletes who are able to place the greatest demand on themselves are the ones who make it. We have been introduced to this ‘Win at all costs’ mentality, whereby you HAVE to win no matter what; athletes that feel the NEED to win are the ones with the strongest mentality. So, let me paint a hypothetical scenario. You are about to compete in a competition for the first time ever since pre COVID. You’ve set this expectation that you NEED to hit all of your lifts. It’s not simply a case of wanting to get 9 for 9, it’s a MUST for you. Nothing else will satisfy this desire to get those 3 white lights for all your attempts. Now let’s imagine that you are about to hit your opening squat of 130kg. If you are thinking you MUST, NEED, SHOULD hit 9 for 9 what do you think the consequence of this type of expectation will have on you on the day. It would be to no surprise that you may be feeling very high levels of anxiety. Your heart may be beating through your chest, you may start shaking a bit. Or you may start trying to delay time and spend an extra minute doing your pre-lift routine on the podium. Maybe you’ll start lashing out at your coach in the warm up room because your technique ‘doesn’t feel right’. In a nutshell, you may start to experience intense unhelpful emotions and behaviours. This can range from being defensive and verbally abusive to experience intense bouts of crying.
The high demands we place on ourselves
The issue that is highlighted in this story is that we have genuinely started believing that if we place a very high demand of ourselves then we will experience success. But this can only take us so far before having a toll on us. Don’t get me wrong, this high demand may work really well for some athletes, but it doesn’t work well for every athlete. As athletes we can DESIRE more from ourselves and recognise that we can have a very big WANT but this doesn’t have to be a NEED. A want is something that we desire, a need is something that we have to have and without it we are doomed. For example, we need to eat, sleep and poop to survive; we want to perform well, make ourselves and others proud and do our best. As performers, we can develop the skill of understanding that placing this high demand on ourselves can ironically lead us to acting and experiencing emotions that have little benefit to us reaching our goals.
The way we judge ourselves if we don’t meet these rigid demands
Unfortunately, what adds more insult to injury with the high demands we place on ourselves is the judgement we put on ourselves as a result of not reaching these high demands. For example, I need to hit 9 out of 9 lifts, if I don’t then I’m a failure. Other judgements could include, if I don’t then I don’t deserve to be a powerlifter; or I am worthless; or I suck. We are no longer thinking rationally and with logic, we are adding layers of negative judgement from a very demanding expectation of ourselves.
Turning into a mind reader if we don’t meet the rigid demands
In other cases we may turn into mind readers. We start to think we know what other people may think if we don’t achieve the high demand we’ve placed on ourselves. In my case, when I’ve had demanding expectations of myself I would sometimes think, if I don’t meet the expectations then people will think I’m either a: (1) failure, (2) loser and/or (3) useless. Some of us may have had experiences with being concerned about what the coach may think if we don’t meet highly demanding expectations we have built for ourselves.
Not all negative emotions are unhelpful emotions. Sometimes you’ll experience emotions like concern, worry or disappointment which serve as helpful emotions that can work to kick you in gear and act in a way that is helpful for your performance. For example, if you think in a helpful manner “I want to perform well in my first competition back”, then you may experience worry which will motivate you to make sure you do your preparation for the competition.
Recognise when your brain is thinking in a highly demanding way. Take the time to question and evaluate what that specific thought is. One good practice is to ask yourself if a friend told you that thought, what would you say to them.
Be flexible and realistic in your expectations of yourself. You are not superman or wonder woman, nobody is. Acknowledge whether the way you are thinking is helpful or unhelpful for you. If it is unhelpful, develop an expectation that is helpful for you in pursuit of your goals.
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