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Why Performance Staff Self-Esteem is Locked To Career Progression: Whether You Like It or Not!

men in sport self-esteem Oct 13, 2022

You’re either considered a highly successful member of performance staff, or you’re striving toward the roles that you have defined as highly successful.

The constant pursuit of excellence can have its positive side, which we see in most individuals who have professional sports careers. We see the advancements in performance preparation in the physical, mental, and skill prowess of the world's top athletes.

What that means to me is witnessing what the incredible human body is capable of within 3-dimensional time and space.

But whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not - I can tell you right now, there is a dark side to this pursuit of excellence. As of writing this article, I am 111 interviews into speaking with performance support staff from around the world, most of whom have “THE TOP ROLES.”

I have found the honesty of these men I have spoken with and now work with to be profound. I am grateful to have heard the deeper layers of the very personal and emotional struggles of the men behind sport. And this is from those whom in the past I would have been intimidated by because of their outwardly vast knowledge, experience, and success.

“My self-esteem and sense of worth were completely baked into my job. If you’re as anchored to your job as I was from a self-esteem perspective, the only reward for all your hard work and capabilities is to not ‘not’ work, the only feedback you’re likely to get is when something has gone wrong – all of that will wear you down mentally eventually.”

 - Darren Roberts (Read Beware The Lone Wolf, Career Blueprint)

I have multiple spreadsheets of quotes that support this one. They show what's truly going on for the men behind sport related to self-esteem, validation, over-striving, being held back by identity, and pleasing others at the expense of themselves.

In a recent poll, those who voted agreed that their self-esteem is tied to their career progression.

So in this week's article, you'll learn how self-esteem guides performance support staff and what you can do about it.

This article will cover:

  • What is Self-Esteem
  • What is Healthy Self-Esteem
  • What is Perfectionism
  • 10 Signs of Low Self-Esteem & Perfectionism
  • The 5 Truths of Self-Esteem
  • Coach Case Study: The Cost of Unaddressed Low Self-Esteem
  • The Achievement Feedback Loop in Performance Sport
  • Understanding Self
  • Markers of Success
  • 3 Steps to Develop Your Self-Esteem

What is Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is defined as:

“Your subjective sense of your overall personal worth or value. Similar to self-respect, it describes your level of confidence in your abilities and attributes.”

The most important attitude you have may be the attitude you have toward yourself. 

A basic sense of self-worth and confidence in the effectiveness of our actions provides a fundamental foundation for growth. Self-esteem is one of the strongest correlates of life satisfaction, although differences appear between cultures.

The problem doesn’t come from self-esteem itself, but rather in the pursuit of self-esteem. Becoming too focused on improving self-esteem is an indication that something has gone awfully wrong in self-regulation and well-being.

Low self-esteem can present as:

  • Resistance and lack of discipline to get beyond your familiar self – the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions connected to your belief about low self-esteem.
  • Fear of the unknown.

Difficulty maintaining self-esteem and maladaptive efforts to do so, may be central to a variety of mental health problems. When self-esteem is too much of a concern relative to other needs, this is an indication that our self-esteem has become unhealthy, highly insecure, unstable, and highly dependent on the validation of others.


What is Healthy Self-Esteem

The latest research suggests that healthy self-esteem is an outcome of genuine accomplishment, intimate connections with others, and a sense of growing and developing as a whole person.

Healthy self-esteem is comprised of 2 distinct components: Self-worth and self-mastery.

1. Self-Worth involves the evaluation of your overall sense of self:

Are you a fundamentally good person with social value in the world?

Feeling worthy of who you are as a person lays a healthy foundation for whom you want to become.

2. Self-Mastery involves the evaluation of your overall sense of agency:

Are you an intentional being who can bring about your desired goals by exercising your will?

Healthy self-esteem involves not only liking yourself but also having an overall feeling that you are a competent human being. Self-esteem is an important human need and is not the same as narcissism.


 What is Perfectionism

Perfectionism is defined as:

“A personality characteristic defined by striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards for performance accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations.”

It’s commonly known that perfectionism is a prevalent characteristic in athletes. Some researchers have argued that perfectionism in sports is maladaptive because it undermines athletes’ performance and stifles athletic development.

What’s not spoken about is how the same traits of perfectionism are prevalent in performance support staff.

Perfectionism is a multidimensional characteristic and only some dimensions of perfectionism are clearly maladaptive, whereas others are not.

The first dimension is perfectionistic strivings, which capture those aspects of perfectionism associated with striving for perfection and setting exceedingly high standards of performance. 

The second dimension is perfectionistic concerns, which capture those aspects associated with concerns over making mistakes, fear of negative evaluation by others, feelings of discrepancy between our expectations and performance, and negative reactions to imperfection.

“Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking.”

- Brené Brown

Healthy striving is internally driven.

Perfectionism is not striving to be our best or working toward excellence. It’s externally driven by a simple but potentially paralysing question: “What will people think.”

It’s self-destructive because there is no such thing as perfectionism. We know that and aim to distill this idea to the athletes we work with. Athleticism and sporting achievement is ALWAYS work in progress.

Yet we don’t take our own advice and get sucked into our own skewed pursuit of live, look and do everything just right.

When we are inevitably “only ever 1 mistake away from coming from a high to crashing back down”  we experience shame, judgment, and blame because we weren’t perfect enough.

Research shows that a perfectionist is someone with "excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” They insist on perfection and accept nothing shy of flawlessness. This can manifest as criticism of self and others and in attempts to control situations and people.

Perfectionists see their self-esteem as tied to what they achieve, and they believe that others judge them on this. They can never live up to the standards they set for themselves and this can lead to a downward spiral of self-criticism and blame.


10 Signs of Low Self-Esteem & Perfectionism

If you’re wondering whether this affects you, there’s a good chance it does—at least to a degree.

There's also a good chance you have some investment in being like this because of the nature of performance sports. Here are 10 signs that you may be able to spot in yourself or people you know:

  1. Your worth is tied to your accomplishments.
  2. Unless you are achieving, you tend not to feel good.
  3. You always need to be doing something. Sitting still is excruciating.
  4. You’re a perfectionist (nothing is ever good enough).
  5. You have to be the best at everything you do, even your hobbies.
  6. You can be endlessly competitive.
  7. You not only have high expectations of yourself but of others too.
  8. You have a harsh inner critic (what’s wrong with me, why’d I make that mistake, you’re an idiot).
  9. You’ve gone after accomplishments such as promotions or new roles that you may not have even wanted, just for the status, and prestige associated with them.
  10. You’re constantly striving which keeps you from savouring and celebrating your accomplishments before moving on to tackle the next one. Sometimes you forget past accomplishments because you are focused on what comes next.

The 5 Truths of Self-Esteem

While low self-esteem can be a catalyst for success, it can also come at a high personal cost. It can spiral you down into feelings of anxiety and depression. If you are doing well on the outside but suffering on the inside, it’s important to recognize these five truths:

  1. You don’t have to prove your worthiness. YES, it’s a myth you have to earn your worthiness. The truth is that you were born worthy.
  2. External measures do not add or take away from your worthiness. Since you are born worthy, successes and failures don’t add to or detract from your inherent worthiness.
  3. Comparing yourself to others is a waste of time and energy. You don’t have to prove your worth. It’s already there, so it doesn’t matter how you compare to others.
  4. YOU are enough just as you are. Right here. Right now.
  5. A coach or mentor can help support you in working to improve your self-esteem. It’s a valuable investment that can help you reclaim your life on your terms without breaking yourself.

Coach Case Study: The Cost of Unaddressed Low Self-Esteem

In the early part of our lives, the energy we focus toward success pays dividends. But life changes and although we have so much proof in our brain that "this way works," the uncomfortable truth comes when admitting that it's not working anymore.

This was clear to see when I was a coach in sport, and the men I work with also have the awareness that their achievements don't provide emotional or spiritual nourishment:

"Something is missing in my life and I don't know what it is, I realised work was unfulfilling so now what. I feel trapped by my own expectation and that my career would equal meaning. I thought that when I got my dream job everything would click into place and that I was going to get validated in the way that I had been seeking - yet I got my dream job and had none of those feelings which made me so angry, I know work is not going to get this done, I don't know what's going to make me fulfilled but I know it's not my career.”

With high levels of achievement comes a perceived expectation to keep delivering in your career and to be happy doing it. And if you don't deliver it's your own fault:

"I perceived not achieving as a failure which falls all on me because I have the prerequisite tools to achieve those things. I've felt pressure to achieve the markers of what people perceive as me being really good at... so I was inevitably going to fail which drove me into a hole.”

“The cost has been my emotional breakdown which led me to attempt suicide twice. To see how challenging that has been for my partner to deal with has been very hard. The fretting, lack of sleep and constant hormonal state I was probably in for months at a time, I imagine has done some damage to my physical health too.”

There is an assumption that happiness comes with success. Personally, I fell headfirst into that trap within my career and was baffled at why the shine of each position I had began to wear off after a while. This plagued me for much of my life, up until I was 36 years old. I'd assume blame on the people, the environment, and the organisations for being the cause of my unhappiness. Nothing was ever good enough!

"I want help to be able to find my visceral feelings and actually believe that all of this shit isn't real.”

"I've become aggressive, confrontational, desperately unhappy, I wasn't receiving any benefit or gain from anything I was doing, I'm obsessed with work to the point where it took over and affected everyone around me, I don't like the person I've become, my wellness and wellbeing is in the gutter, I'm not doing the right things for myself and I'm a bit of a mess.”

"I've always been chasing something, I feel nothing I ever do will be good enough. I never celebrate my wins either small or big. Because I'm always chasing something better I'm never fulfilled with what I've got. It has a knock-on impact on my confidence and enjoyment of my life, I'm only ever one mistake away from coming from a high to crashing back down."


The Achievement Feedback Loop in Performance Sport 

Having a high drive to self-improve that is fueled by rock-bottom self-esteem can take you very far in your career because you’re coupling a sense of inferiority with a relentless pursuit of achievement.

This happens due to the feedback loop that's been rewarding you for playing the game and burying your head to this fact.

The badge on your chest, the achievements of "your" athletes, the recognition from your peers, the LinkedIn in title, the boost to ego when you say what you do to people you meet.

Simply put you aren’t incentivised to do otherwise, despite the hours you do, the sacrifices you make, and the typically low salary.

This has served many of the coaches I have spoken with very well, as well as myself - but at what cost?

In my example, I struggled so hard to retain all of the technical and scientific knowledge that "underpinned" what I considered a great coach. I'd assigned such value and meaning to be able to spout off the latest research or offer evidence to tell "my" athletes what they should and should be doing. Yet this was an area I felt I always fell short of, which played perfectly into my, unknown at the time, low self-esteem.

What made me good at my job wasn't technical knowledge or presenting at any conferences. For me, it was the connection I could make with the people in front of me. But at the time I didn't value that and was always looking for the next "role" because then I could show people I was an “expert."

Little did I know at the time that it didn't matter what role I was in or what I knew until I became aware of looking at myself as a man and the places I needed to heal.

It’s one thing to be self-aware, it's another to care about it enough to make changes. Knowing is half the battle, it's what you do about it that truly counts.


Understanding Self

The beauty of life is that we are all fallible and flawed in some way. I believe that is part of the reason why we feel the need to make our mark in our career so loud that everyone hears it. 

Because we are looking to make up for those parts of us that have been unavoidably bumped by life. We just haven't been given a road map to understanding how we manage those bumps.

I sense among many performance staff, and certainly, with my own journey, the magnitude of unhappiness the men behind sport experience is down to low self-esteem and looking outside for validation.

At the core level validation provides acceptance, belonging and safety. Maybe the "Better Never Stops" motto of the London 2012 Olympic Games is us lost on the roundabout of trying to soothe or fill those deeper parts of us. Yet we aren't aware that we're pouring water into a colander instead of a glass. 

Beginning the journey towards understanding self is something we all will come to at some point in our lives. The only difference is based on what will be the catalyst to initiate that journey. 

As you may know, for me it was grief that broke me down to open me up. I can safely say these past 8 years have been a powerful rollercoaster. Yet I wouldn't ever choose to go back to my old unaware self. This journey is profound and quite possibly the real path to life that continues to unfold, challenge and liberate me.

Most success stories are borne out of pain. They are what drive us to understand life, to keep learning and growing. Leverage your pain so it becomes a source of strength rather than a limitation. 


Markers of Success

A common discussion point in the conversations I've had has been what appears to be a separation between success and happiness. Of course, each of these is highly subjective, yet without true reflection, there seems to be a default aim to focus on what other people perceive as success.

Whether that's in academic circles, practitioner peer groups, or from the social validation gained. Happiness is assumed will occur when "success" is achieved. Yet it rarely does work out that way - for the men I work with, nor did it for me in my career.

"I had a tough time after athletes I supported achieved Olympic success. I felt directionless and aimless, in my mind I thought that having an athlete winning gold was the pinnacle of what we do and why we do it - but after they had won I was waiting for some kind of feeling of achievement to hit and it just never did.”

What marker of success are you aiming for in your career?

Firstly, if you can’t define that clearly then you’re in for a rough ride.

Secondly, if you can then is that coming from you? Or is it defined by the pressure to achieve the markers of what people perceive as you being successful e.g. publishing a load of papers.


3 Steps to Develop Your Self-Esteem

You can take steps to address problems with your perceptions of yourself and faith in your abilities.

1. Defining How Low Self-Esteem Shows Up For You

Before you can enhance your self-esteem, you have to be able to see how your belief of low self-esteem is defining how you think, feel and act. Often these actions are highly detrimental to yourself and the people you love. Examples include:

“I was working 6.7 days a week across a 12-month period. I wasn't seeing my kids or my wife and I hit this brick wall that made me realise you know what this isn't right. But before that wall, I couldn't see it and just thought I was leading the way to something important in sport.”

“I felt panic that I didn't know what else I needed to do to try and be achieving the "thing" and also feeling like a failure and just not good enough. Panic of not knowing how to be where I was supposed to be which was world-class and respected of the "thing", how do I stop myself being on this endless chase.”

Before reading on, it’s important to take some time to think about each of those points:

Can you see evidence of this in your own life?
Are there ways low self-esteem has presented in your life that you weren’t aware of before?

2. Taking Responsibility with Self Compassion

Step 2 is about taking responsibility for your personal reality by first acknowledging and owning those aspects of yourself that you've defined.

Self-compassion presents an opportunity to understand, acknowledge, and transform personal suffering through self-kindness, and mindfulness.

When we learn how to practice compassion from within, we begin to care more about ourselves and strive to alleviate our own suffering. We learn to be less self-critical and instead treat ourselves with kindness when faced with undesirable experiences.

3. Practice Surrender

When we meditate, we cultivate our ability to let go and to keep our thoughts and feelings in perspective. We learn to simply observe instead of actively participate in every little experience that pops into our head. In other words, we are “loosening the grip we have on our sense of self.”

While this may sound counterintuitive to developing and maintaining a positive sense of self, it is actually a great way to approach it. Through meditation, we gain the ability to become aware of our inner experiences without over-identifying with them, letting our thoughts pass by without judgment or a strong emotional response.

As meditation expert Andy Puddicombe notes, low self-esteem can be understood as the result of over-identification with the self. When we get overly wrapped up in our sense of self, whether that occurs with a focus on the positive (I’m the BEST) or the negative (I’m the WORST), we place too much importance on it. We may even get obsessive about the self, going over every little word, thought, or feeling that enters our mind.

It’s about overcoming resistance and consistently showing up for yourself, in this work, every day.

When you have the ability to step back and observe a disturbing or self-deprecating thought, it suddenly doesn’t have as much power over you as it used to; this deidentification with the negative thoughts you have about yourself results in less negative talk over time, and freedom from your overly critical inner voice.


Conclusion

“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don't belong. You will always find it because you've made that your mission. Stop scouring people's faces for evidence that you're not enough. You will always find it because you've made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don't negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild hearts against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.”

- Brené Brown (researcher into shame, vulnerability, and the need for belonging)

Sometimes the things you end up struggling with the most can turn out to be helpful in ways you would never expect. Setting goals and wanting to achieve success through the impact you provide in your career is admirable.

Take care, though, that you don’t use it as a measure of your self-esteem. To live a happy and content life, you must learn how to recognize and embrace your worthiness regardless of what you accomplish.

Learning new skills to overcome longstanding ways of thinking and behaving takes time and practice, and slip-ups are to be expected. If you find it hard to shift your perspective, seek support from a mentor or coach to help keep you on track with your progress.

Believing you create your reality means you acknowledge that nothing can change in your life until you change. Being accountable means being willing to examine what you need to change about yourself to draw closer to the new future – the new personal reality – you envision.


Join the next intake of The Lost to Libertaed Blueprint

This is one of the core 8 skills within The Lost to Liberated Blueprint.

If this sounds like one of the personal leadership skills you're looking to develop and grow within yourself, join our upcoming intake:

It's a program specifically designed for senior performance support staff who are driven to make an impact in high-performance sport yet feel lost with direction, stuck and pigeon-holed by their identity in sport, and/or burnt out from improving their athletes at the expense of themselves.

This program empowers them to open up their self-awareness so they can move to a place of calm and clarity to find their personal freedom within sport or to create their own exit strategy aligned to their personal values.

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Discover where you currently are in the 7-step process of change, the problems that keep you trapped in frustration, the path of moving from "I can't" to "I am", and the powerful guided reflection to support you in taking the next steps in your life.