The first version of this article appeared in Cricket South Africa’s October Powerplay magazine.
Even though I have been successfully coaching individuals and teams to help them perform at a higher level for over 10 years, in 2015 I felt like an absolute failure. All of my coaching and training qualifications and years of experience could not prevent me from feeling devastated when many of the teams I was working with couldn’t deliver the wins expected of them.
I believed a lack of mental toughness to be a key factor for their poor performance and since it was my job to develop that mental toughness in others, I believed that I was the one responsible for the losses. I had failed.
I felt the same kind of deep burning embarrassment that I did when I was 10 years old and arrived at school to find all the kids pointing at me and rolling with laughter at the huge hole in my gray school pants. Helpless, pathetic, alone. In spite of all my experience, skills and my self-development work it felt like none of it was of any damn use to me.
I put on this brave public face whilst inside I see-sawed between feeling like I wanted to throw-up and blaming myself for the poor results and then blaming myself again for my poor handling of the poor results. I felt like a fraud and I wondered when someone was going to march into a room whilst I was working and tell me, “Get out – we don’t want the kind of help that leads to losing!”
I only truly let the walls down at home and so I wallowed in a negative intenal spiral I couldn’t find my way out of. My wife, not being one to mince her words, soon asked the question, “So if you love being involved with sport so much, why is it making you so miserable?”
Why indeed? I didn’t need to be a mental coach to know that sulking was not helping matters and that I had to make an important decision. I had to ‘solve’ this thing of directly attaching my worth to performance or reputation, once and for all. Alternatively I could quit working in sports and accept that I didn’t have what it takes to handle the emotional rollercoaster of winning and losing when there is so much at stake.
Sports work, due to its very nature, consists of many highs and lows. Every time one of my teams won I felt validated and proud to be making a difference in their lives, both personally and professionally. However, when they didn’t win I feared, deep down, that their growth didn’t matter if the outcome didn’t translate to success on the field. It took me a while to realise that I was interpreting my own contribution the same way. I had linked my self-worth to winning, which not only led to great unhappiness, but also limited my effectiveness within the team. It was clear that I couldn’t go on this way.
When I started researching what the key thinkers in the field were saying about self-worth I found a series of well meaning, yet ineffective pieces of advice.
‘Be kind to yourself.’ ‘Don’t judge yourself or others.’ ‘Be your own best friend and not your worst critic.’ ‘Believe that you are enough.’ ‘Exercise more.’ ‘Be appreciative and grateful.’
Sure, there are some merit in the above advice, but for me it worked about as well as putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Annoyed and frustrated my stubborn side finally kicked in and I became determined – ‘I will figure this out, I am sure there is a better way.’
I started by asking two important questions: ‘What is the mindset or structure of healthy self-worth?’ and ‘How can I change my self-worth from something I am intellectually aware of, into something I can actually feel and experience regardless of performance or results?’
Part of me knew that I wasn’t a failure. I knew that every member of a team must take responsibility for their individual contribution and that it was healthy to not feel over responsible. Sometimes our collective best is not enough. I knew this to be true, but emotionally and experientially it didn’t count. It was almost like my mind knew, but my body didn’t believe it – and my body was winning. As I started to unpack and understand what was going on for me I noticed that it was very similar to what happens when cricketers choke: the mind knows what it wants to do, however, the body says no – and then the body wins.
Over the years many cricketers (and other athletes) that I have worked with have shared how they’ve been thwarted by their bodies when it mattered most. When the pressure was on, like during a tough final, they experienced upset stomachs, ‘dead’ feet, stiff hands, sweaty palms, tight chests and foggy heads.
To solve this problem, I developed a technique called Scanning which works with the body to release the fears, anxieties and negativity trapped inside, which otherwise only emerge when under pressure. Scanning proved to be not only effective for releasing the bad within, but also as a tool to instil healthy beliefs related to self-worth in the body. (We are often intellectually aware of these healthy beliefs, but because it’s not instilled in the body we do not feel their positive effect when faced with failure or extreme pressure.)
The next step was to identify the healthy beliefs which, when combined, will create healthy self-worth effectively and in the shortest period of time.
It was Brené Brown’s TED talk The power of vulnerability which inspired the first two beliefs out of the ten I’ve subsequently identified as being needed for healthy self-esteem.
In her talk Brown makes a compelling case for living wholeheartedly and defines it as, “the act of consciously embracing and growing from what makes you vulnerable.” She says those who live wholeheartedly believe that they are enough and that they are worthy of love, connection and belonging. Not only did her talk inspire some of my work, it also revealed to me it was possible to fully believe and internalise that I was enough, even when my best efforts to help a team perform wasn’t.
The ten beliefs that combine to create healthy self-esteem are the result of extensive research and experimentation. Beliefs such as ‘I have what it takes,’ ‘I matter,’ I belong and ‘I accept myself fully’ can be internalised and the conditions removed. As you can imagine this is intense and deeply rewarding work – if you are ready for it you can learn how to do it from my latest book Game Changer Protocol, available on Amazon.com.
You do not have to accept your life and beliefs as simply the ‘way it is’. However, if you are not ready to put in the work just yet, realise that everyone is fighting their own secret battle – it’s not just you and you don’t have to fight this battle alone.
Tim Goodenough is an Executive Coach who specialises in High Performance: the art and science of helping elite athletes, sports teams, top entrepreneurs, CEOs and executive leaders overcome their challenges and excel at every level.