Self-Handicapping: Overcoming “Yourself” in Competition

tennisball-1.jpgBy Larry Lauer, PhD, CC-AASP

Michigan Youth Sports Institute
Named one of the NSAPE Top 100 coaching educators of 2007

For a number of years I have worked with athletes as a coach and mental performance consultant. Self-confidence is usually the reason why athletes first contact me. They have hit the bottom so to speak and are willing to try something “alternative” in their minds to find their games. With these I clients I have talked a lot about staying positive and thinking productively. Yet, I notice a phenomenon that many athletes struggle to overcome. And, that is self-handicapping.

Allow me to describe one case to make my point. I have consulted with an elite tennis player for several years. He is a very talented player but lacks the confidence to truly excel meaning he often leaves matches thinking he missed an opportunity or was unable to perform well. At first, he described this as being unable to focus at times on the court. He would think about random things, and become distracted on things he could not control such as line calls. Even worse, things he could control, such as his arousal or energy level during the warm up, he perceived to be out of his control. It was indicative of “waking up on the wrong side of the bed” and “it is not my day” thinking…..

At the time we worked on his ability to focus on stimuli that would enhance his focus and performance (e.g., the racket strings, his game plan). We also examined his thinking before and during matches. What was undermining his confidence? Off the court he is a very confident young man. What was eroding his confidence on the court? Then, he described to me how he compares himself to his opponent. He attempted to predict his chances of winning. This would occur hours before the tournament once the draw was announced or during the warm up once he began to see how his opponent was striking the ball (especially the serve).

Self-Talk is Key and Can be Good or Bad

This has been an ongoing battle for this player over the past few years that he manages well and not so well at times. And, the effects of self-handicapping are not limited to just playing very good opponents and doubting his chances to win and play well. To this day he will examine the draw and say “This guy is not that good, it should be easy.” Now, I don’t mind a player believing he or she can win, however, this overconfident comparison also sets him up to perform poorly. In fact this occurred in the last tournament I attended. In a first round match he expected to win he lost handily after leading by a break in the first set. He described his performance as “lazy” and “not being able to get the feel.” To me these were descriptors of not being at an optimal level of arousal due to his overconfident state and subsequent lack of preparation.

Self-handicapping is not confined to this one player or the sport of tennis. I have noticed the tendency for players to compare themselves prior to competition in soccer, football, ice hockey, figure skating, baseball, you name it and it occurs. That is why some football coaches will line their reserve players along the middle of the field; so the starters will not be looking at their opponent!

Know “How” Your Mind Races

It seems very hard for athletes to keep themselves from handicapping a competition. Several tennis players I’ve consulted talk about how they are negatively affected when family or just other players talking about the draw. For professional athletes reading the paper, listening to and watching sports shows would definitely tax one’s ability to avoid too much self-handicapping. Prior to the 2006 World Cup of soccer there were endless predictions about each of the pools and which teams would make it to the round of 16 matches. At this year’s Wimbledon injuries and upsets opened the draw for several players to make a deep run for the first time in a grand slam. You would think what a great opportunity! However, for some players this creates a great deal of pressure because their expectations rise and losing is more of a disappointment. Their mind races to what could be (the breakthrough of one’s career) and what they could lose (the opportunity of a lifetime). Certainly, these thoughts can overtake even the most mentally disciplined athlete.

Develop and Rehearse “Proxy Thoughts” to Keep it Real

How can athletes overcome their tendency to self-handicap and be their own worst enemy? First, they must develop awareness that they are self-handicapping and how it affects their mindset and preparation for competition. Going back to the case of the tennis player, he identified self-handicapping thoughts that occurred during the warm up such as “this will be easy.” Next, he attempted to stop these thoughts immediately. One technique previously presented in Podium is that of the “Thought Pattern Interrupt.”  Not only does this technique result in thought stopping, it can be used to reroute thinking.  For example, he replaced his self-handicapping thoughts with thoughts focused on how he was feeling – “powerful, strong, confident, loose”, etc. At the same time we did want him to learn about his opponent during the warm up. We talked about observing his opponent for tendencies and for strengths and weaknesses but to treat it like a coach. His goal was to understand his opponent’s game and not to judge his chances of winning. A tough thing to do, but nonetheless important!

Use Rhythm and Routines To Your Advantage

Finally, we spent a great deal of time working on routines and getting into a rhythm. By getting into a comfortable routine our hope was that he would get “his feel” and begin to flow into competition. This would allow him to focus on productive thoughts and minimize handicapping thoughts. Sometimes athletes need a trigger to able to go from evaluating to just reacting. In tennis players can use the strategy of thinking “bounce” when the ball bounced on their side of the court, and “hit” as they are striking the ball to find rhythm and feel.

Overcoming the tendency for athletes to self-handicap is not easy. It is difficult to avoid handicapping one’s chances because the brain has a natural propensity of comparing and judging. In addition, parents and other players often handicap and predict match-ups which lead the athlete back into a comparison thought process. In some ways you want to teach athletes to use self-handicapping sparingly and to their advantage. They should believe in their chances and yet not become overconfident. Great coaches have been manipulating self-handicapping for years. If a team is entering competition overconfident the coach will find ways to remind them that they must prepare and compete – “because on any given Sunday…” any team can win. And in the opposite case where a team is lacking belief, coaches will build them up and focus on their strengths and playing their game versus worrying so much about their opponent. In this way, athletes should think like shrewd coaches and manipulate their thoughts purposefully.

Ultimately, athletes must be aware of how their self-handicapping is affecting their preparation and performance. Then, they have an opportunity to implement strategies at appropriate times and minimize self-handicapping.

Larry LauerDr. Larry Lauer, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry – is a coaching education specialist at Michigan State University and a valued member of the Michigan Youth Sports Institute.  He was voted one of the top 100 coaching educators in the country and was winner of the prestigious “Dissertation Award” by the Association of Applied Sport Psychology for his work:  Playing Tough and Clean Hockey: Teaching Emotional Management Skills to Reduce Aggression in Youth Ice Hockey

2 thoughts on “Self-Handicapping: Overcoming “Yourself” in Competition

  • October 4, 2011 at 2:09 am

    I really appreciate this article. It “labels” what I’ve experienced in my own sport performance (golf) and therefore, resonates with me. I think it will help me in my work with athletes.

    • October 4, 2011 at 5:38 pm

      Thanks David,
      Self-handicapping is not so easy to identify and there are others who describe it in different ways. Check out the interview with Dave Scott as he talks about how athletes “margin” for themselves “reasons” for not performing well enough to win. Its not stated as “self-handicapping” but its employed in another form and with another sport”. Check it out.
      Stephen Walker


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