Part III: Losing yourself – Injuries and the athletic identity
Injuries suck. I think everyone can agree on that. But especially for competitive athletes, injuries are often times more than just a nuisance, that temporarily keeps them from doing something they like to do. Athletes often experience a downright emotional rollercoaster after having injured themselves and during the rehabilitation process. Anger, resentment, anxiety, confusion, shock, helplessness and pretty much everything in between can occur. I certainly can say for myself, that I have gone through almost everything on that list in the past six months following my finger injury. In the most extreme cases an athlete might even develop a full-blown depression or commit suicide. These events do have more than one cause, probably including many that have nothing to do whatsoever with the injury. Nevertheless, injuries are one of the biggest risk factors for suicide in athletes.
To an outsider, such a reaction may seem completely unreasonable, especially if the injury is something that seems to be rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things, like a strained muscle, a broken bone or a torn ligament. These might seem like an unfortunate annoyance but hardly reason for such an extreme psychological reaction. However, one must realize that an injury has the potential to be a traumatic experience for athletes. For example, these individuals often experience symptoms following the injury, comparable to what people experience after having been in a fire or a natural disaster. But why is that?
There is certainly a whole range of factors that contribute to the high stress potential of an injury, including but not limited to the loss of the social environment and one’s daily structure as well as simply being unable to do something one loves. However, one central aspect is the identity threat that comes with being an injured athlete.
Usually, one’s self-concept consists of a variety of different self-constructs. For example, I have a self-construct of myself as a psychology student, which is primarily important at the university or when I am studying. On the other hand, at home my role within the family might come more into focus. The extent to which a person identifies with the role of an athlete and uses it for the purpose of self-definition is called the athletic identity. In many competitive athletes, this is – unsurprisingly – very highly developed. Why else would someone spend all those hours grinding through long sessions, continue climbing with bloody hands and squeeze into shoes that are at least two sizes too small. In general, a strong athletic identity is not something negative or to be avoided, on the contrary, it can have a variety of positive effects such as higher self-esteem and (not surprisingly, I think) better performance. I don`t think there was or ever will be a very high-level athlete that doesn’t identify with the role of an athlete to a very substantial degree. However, an injury essentially eliminates that source of identity and the person is suddenly confronted with the question: “What am I without this sport?” Now, the crucial problem arises, if the role of an athlete is the only thing a person uses to define herself, because in this case the answer will be: “Nothing”. From this perspective, it becomes obvious why injuries can evoke such strong psychological reactions that otherwise can appear to be completely out of proportion. If the sport is everything one has, life without it might not really seem worth living.
Now, the solution to this problem is not necessarily reducing one’s identification as an athlete. That might be sensible or even required if the injury is career-ending or one resigns from (competitive) sports for other reasons. By the way, in such cases, a similar phenomenon can occur, meaning, that individuals who up to that point have only defined themselves as an athlete are at risk of running into psychological and emotional trouble. This demonstrates that simply devaluating the role of the sport for one’s life is not a particularly good idea, as long as one does not have anything else to draw his identity and self-worth from. Furthermore, in most cases the goal is to get back to being able to train and compete, thus the importance of the sport is not to be reduced generally. Therefore, the solution is not giving up one’s identity as an athlete but creating additional sources from which to derive feelings of self-worth and identity. For example, during the past six months, while rehabilitating my finger injury, my university studies have helped me tremendously, as they gave me something aside from the injury to focus on, into which I was able to invest my time in and something to be proud of at the end of the day.
Part of the solution might already be shifting the focus away from the performance to the process of being an athlete. Often times, the real question – at least for competitive athletes - is not: “What am I without the sport?”, but rather: “What am I without my abilities and achievements?” In most cases, people can still train somehow, even while injured. However, if feelings of identity and self-worth are only drawn from the actual performance, that’s a small comfort. However, if being an athlete is defined as showing up for training, working hard and doing what needs to be done, an injury does not stand in the way of that all that much. And ironically, this very much increases the chances of returning to one’s previous level of performance faster.
This question: "What am I without my ability to perform?” is one that, for competitive athletes, is not only relevant in the context of injury. The very same question arises during times in which training is not going so well, whenever a competition goes wrong and of course sooner or later when one ends his or her career. Therefore, in my opinion, it is absolutely essential for every athlete to have an answer to this question.
When I started competing, my youth coach once confronted me with this very same question (at least indirectly) and to be honest, back then I did not have an answer. I have always been someone who in nearly all aspects of life identifies in terms of my performance and the prospect of losing that was pretty scary. But over time I have learned to shift that focus. Three weeks before I injured my finger and immediately prior to the only two competition of the “Covid-Season” 2020, I tweaked something in my back and for a couple of days was not sure whether I would be able to start. In the six months leading up to that I had not missed a single day of training, I was stronger than ever before and suddenly I wasn't sure whether all of that might have been in vain. But I did not regret a single one of those days. And in that moment, I knew I had an answer. That does not mean I was not very much annoyed initially and quite relieved once it turned out I was able to compete after all. The same goes for the past six months, in which I had to deal with my finger injury. It has been anything but easy, but not because I felt like I needed to perform in order to be someone, but simply because I love climbing and being able to try hard and I simply missed that a lot.
An athlete should never define him or herself only in terms of achievement and performance. Making one's whole happiness, identity, and feelings of self worth dependent on what one is able to do physically, potentially even restricted to a couple of competitions a year is a recipe for disaster.
PART II: Climbing with Galatea and Pygmalion – The Power of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t - You are right” – Henry Ford
The following text is something I wrote on an Instagram post back in January of 2018 accompanying a video of a simple run and jump style boulder: "A year ago, I wouldn't have dreamed of doing a boulder like this. I was afraid of jumps and parkour-style boulders, avoided them wherever I could and when there was no way around it, I usually failed miserably. And my biggest mistake was probably that I kept telling myself that I was horrible im jumping and I couldn't change something about it anyway. Then, last year at the Berlin championship's the last boulder in the finals was a small, easy Run-and-Jump. Basically everybody did it, except for me. I barely moved out of the starting position. This was the turning point for me. After the comp I decided I had to change something, I couldn't just go on like that with such an obvious weakness. So I started practising. At first it was terrible, I must have looked like a complete idiot, trying to jump without actually moving. But after some time it got a little bit better, and as I got better it started to be more fun. And because I had more fun I did it more often. And because I did it more often I got even better...
Today, I wouldn't go as far to call jumping my strength, but it got a lot better and I'm pretty comfortable with them now. And guess what, it is actually a lot of fun. But the most important thing was, that I stopped telling myself, I can't jump and that really goes for everything. As long as you tell yourself you can't do something, you won't be able to do it." I included a video of the boulder in Berlin last year, but I warn you, it's horrible...
Since then, even more time has passed obviously, and coordination problems and dynos have actually become one of my greatest strengths. Cleary I was not doomed to suck at them forever. So why did I believe I was for such a long time? The answer lies in a phenomenon that is called a self-fulfilling prophecy or an expectancy effect.
Self-Fulfilling & Self-Sustaining Prophecies
Self-fulfilling prophecies are initially false beliefs, which, however, cause a behaviour that does make the expectation become true. The initial conception can both be too positive or too negative, in the end self-fulfilling prophecies simply initiate a trend.
Most of the time, however, none of the parties involved actually realizes how they are shaping their own reality. On the contrary, fulfilment of the prophecy is seen as confirmation of one’s competence in judgement, thereby increasing the confidence in future predictions and the strength of the effects following from them. This has the potential to create – depending on the original expectation – a vicious or a virtuous cycle.
For example, in the past, due to my height and inability to do dynamic moves, I always preferred static solutions to boulder problems. This led to me practicing any sort of coordination style movement even less. That lack of training in turn showed in my results and bolstered my self-perception as a bad “Jumper” including the assumption that I should, whenever possible, prefer static solutions. However, once the trend started reversing and I became better and better, my self-concept shifted, as I was now seeing myself as a good “Jumper”. This in turn led to me preferring dynamic solutions more often, thereby practicing them more and more and becoming even better.
Another incredibly common instance in competitive sports is found in people who are afraid of failure in competitions. The expectation of failure causes stress and distracts from the actual task, thereby actually increasing the probability of a bad performance.
To delineate from the self-fulfilling prophecy is a self-sustaining prophecy. In this case, there is a valid basis for the original assumption. In practices, however, these two are often hard to distinguish. Often times, the original expectation is based on a kernel of truth. Likewise, a self-fulfilling prophecy can become a self-sustaining prophecy, once it has created a certain reality, thereby sustaining it.
Pygmalion & Galatea
Furthermore, two types of self-fulfilling prophecies can be differentiated: If one’s own beliefs are causative of the effect, the phenomenon is called a Galatea effect. If, however, the cause lies in the expectation of another person, e.g., a coach or a parent, this is referred to as a Pygmalion effect.
A Pygmalion effect can occur, if the belief in an athlete’s talent leads to him or her being supported and encouraged a lot. On the other hand, if athletes that are not seen as having potential might not be supported to the same extent or will not be nominated for key competitions. Galatea and Pygmalion effects can be hard to distinguish as well. They may also be in operation at the same time or a Pygmalion effect might be mediated by the transfer of said expectations on to the target.
Using expectancy effects
It is possible to actively use the power of expectancy effects, as they can exert a motivational pull: High expectancies lead to more motivation and training, which lead to higher abilities and better performance which in turn increase expectations again. However, in order to do so, it is necessary to intentionally construct and design the underlying narratives and expectations.
The first step in using expectancy effects deliberately is always to become aware of their possible effects and mechanisms. This enables one to identify existing assumptions, which might be having unwanted effects and change the corresponding beliefs and narratives so that they become beneficial. How exactly this is done will always be specific to the situation and the goal, however the following strategies can serve as guidelines.
Self-concept: One’s self-concept answers the question: “Who am I?”. As long as the answer to that contains certain abilities, behaviours and also weaknesses as an integral part of the own person, it is very difficult to escape the vicious cycle of a self-fulfilling prophecy. To utilize expectancy effects, the self-concept has to be re-designed accordingly: Unhelpful self-constructs have to be changed or eliminated and beneficial conceptions of the own person have to be developed. This will take a lot of time and effort, but it is the foundation, as expectations are a direct consequence of one’s self-concept. As long as they remain unchanged, everything else is merely tinkering about with the symptoms, as the existing beliefs will continue to pull the behaviour towards them like a magnet.
High goals: Even if one – be it as an athlete or as a coach – is sceptical whether high goals are appropriate, one should set them. High (and preferably specific) goals have shown to be conductive to higher performance in psychological research time and time again, as they raise the standard and demand more until satisfaction can set in. Negative expectancy effects can work the other way around. The person sets only very minor goals or none at all. As a consequence, they do not demand much from themselves, don’t improve and et voilá, the prophecy is fulfilled.
Process goals: High goals can easily be perceived as unrealistic. Similarly, it is very difficult to escape the vicious circle of a self-fulfilling prophecy once certain habits and behaviour have become ingrained and weaknesses have developed, since the expectation, is, at least somewhat, true. In this case the solution is not to sugarcoat things or deny the existing problems. On the contrary, that would be counterproductive. I didn’t start the process of learning how to do dynamic movements by persuading myself I was good at them either.
Instead, goals should be oriented on the learning process and aim at showing a way out of the downward spiral. For instance, I could have set the goal of doing a certain number of jumps and coordination style boulders every week.
Intermediate goals: Furthermore, it is helpful to divide the overall goal into smaller subgoals. Again, I didn’t start by trying triple dynos. I started by practicing the easiest jumps imaginable. And once I improved, I started double dynos. And once I had mastered those, THEN I started working on triple dynos. Starting off with the end goal is more likely to cause frustration than anything else, since the discrepancies between the current situation and the target state can seem insurmountable. If, however, the process is divided into many smaller segments, each intermediate goal is doable and the overall goal will become less intimidating.
Effort-Performance-Contingency: An implicit assumption, which is usually part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if it is a negative one, is that one is simply unable to improve in certain things, regardless of all the training and effort. This again keeps one from actually training, because why invest all of that time and effort, if it won’t lead anywhere. More often than not however, this assumption is untrue and is actually quickly recognized as such if it is actually stated openly. To counteract this, it is important to remind oneself again and again, that performance and improvements are, to a very large part, dependent on the investment one makes. At the bottom of it, it is about substituting the belief: “I’m not good at XYZ because I am simply not made for that” with “I am not (yet) good at XYZ, because I haven’t invested the necessary time and effort.” That does not mean anyone can achieve anything or that effort is the only determinant of performance. There will always be people who are naturally gifted in certain things, while others have a really hard time with it. However, one will almost always be better off when making the necessary investments in terms of time and energy.
Self-handicapping: Self-handicapping is a central mechanism by which negative expectancy effects can operate. Self-handicapping is defined as behaviour that undermines one’s performance and capabilities in order to be able to excuse a possible failure in advance. Examples include the avoidance of training, downplaying one’s abilities or even the consumption of alcohol and drugs, especially right before a competition. Although these behaviours can serve as justification for a bad performance, they objectively increase the risk of that very same thing happening in the first place and therefore should be stopped. This can be very difficult, since often times these mechanisms operate subconsciously and have become very ingrained, but in order to fulfil one’s true potential it is absolutely necessary to eliminate these behaviours.
Selective Training: The avoidance of training can – as described – be a used as a self-handicapping strategy. However, a lot of times, athletes will simply spend more time and energy training those aspects and abilities they are already good at, because that is – usually – also the most enjoyable part of training. On the other hand, comparatively little time is spent practicing the things that would actually require it the most, since almost nobody likes working on their weaknesses, especially in front of other people.
However, with all these mechanisms and their situational differences, it should never be forgotten that in the end, the important consequences are in the behaviour. Therefore, it is of central importance to identify the exact points on which expectations influence actual behaviour, in order to understand how these effects are operating and to counteract them if necessary. For example, I might realize that my expectations keep me from practicing a certain style of boulder problems because I am afraid to embarrass myself. In this case I will (hopefully) do something about it, maybe by blocking out certain times of my training, during which the gym is relatively empty, just to focus on that. At the same time, it is obviously necessary to start working on those underlying beliefs and assumptions but waiting until they have changed to start modifying the training is not a great strategy. Instead, both should occur at the same time, in keeping with the motto: “Fake it till you make it”. This can also initiate an upward spiral, as performance improvements due to the training will make it easier to modify beliefs and changes in beliefs and therefore expectations will make it easier to improve.
Similarly, the transfer of expectations from one person to the another is also just possible via behaviour, be it verbal or non-verbal, extremely obvious or incredibly subtle. For example, a coach can openly tell an athlete, that he does not think the athlete will ever get anywhere. But he could also express his expectations by setting low goals, not paying much attention during training sessions or not reacting surprised after setbacks or subpar performances. In these cases, the responsibility for identification and intervention is on both the coach and the athlete, in extreme cases that might even mean switching coaches. The same obviously applies for parents and other important persons (although finding new parents is obviously not an option).
However, regardless of the source and the type, expectancy effects can be incredibly powerful. If left unchecked they are able to create a crippling vicious cycle. On the other hand, if they are used intentionally they can create an equally impressive upward spiral and it is up to each and every one of us whether we will use them to bring out the best in themselves and everyone around us.
PART I: Would have, could have, should have – Counterfactual thought in competition climbing
Bouldering nationals this year didn’t even go really bad in terms of the result, but I felt I made quite a few avoidable mistakes in semis. I ultimately ended up in eighth place, two attempts out of finals and everyone who has been in a similar situation can probably imagine what went through my head during the long train journey back home: “If only I had been a little more patient, I could have done that Boulder first try.” “If only I had positioned my feet a little more carefully, maybe I wouldn’t have fallen off.” “If only I had thought of that beta a little bit earlier” Would have, could have, should have…
Counterfactual thinking and its directions
These kinds of thoughts have been termed counterfactuals and as the name implies, they are about things that could have happened but didn’t. Psychologists distinguish two types of these: In upward counterfactual thinking, a situation is imagined that is better than what happened in actuality. My thoughts after nationals are perfect examples of this category. In contrast to that, downward counterfactuals involve a scenario that are worse than reality, e.g. “At least I did the slab on my third try and didn’t slip again”
Counterfactual thoughts are very common after competitions which is due to the characteristic circumstances of sporting competitions. Psychological research has identified many factors that influence whether and how much counterfactual thinking occurs, what its direction is (upward or downward) and what its specific content is likely to be. Therefore, the following list will only contain those which are most relevant to the competition setting and are able to explain why many athletes spend so much time on – mainly upward – counterfactual thinking after competitions.
Need for correction
Counterfactual thought is especially prevalent in situations that demand corrective action such as a negative event, a failure, or a missed goal, all of which are integral parts of competitive sports, since high expectations and the continual search for possibilities to improve are in its very nature.
Counterfactuals are also more likely to occur, if – in hindsight – it seems as something else “almost” happened meaning another outcome was “closely” missed. This is especially often the case in high-level bouldering competitions with a very dense field, as the smallest differences in movement or beta can have a very large effect on the final ranking.
Furthermore, counterfactual thoughts are more probable following unusual or exceptional occurrences. Due to the high volume of training, competitive athletes usually know themselves and their strengths and weaknesses very well, which is why they tend to be very accurate at assessing whether or not their performance was “normal”
Counterfactuals tend to focus on aspects of the situation that are perceived as controllable. As most (successful) athletes possess an internal locus of control, meaning they interpret events – positive and negative – as consequences of their own behaviour as much as possible, they usually perceive their performance and result as highly controllable.
The more obvious an alternative event is, the more likely it is going to be subject of a counterfactual. In competitions these possible alternatives are made very salient by the explicit comparison between one’s own performance and those of others.
If an event or something similar is likely to repeat, upward counterfactuals tend to predominate. As most comp climbers probably plan on participating in competitions in the future, this is the scenario they find themselves in. If, on the other hand, the occurrence is seen as a one-time happening, the following counterfactuals will likely be mostly downward.
Looking at these factors it becomes very apparent why I spent so much time wrapped up in counterfactual thought after nationals. First of all, there was obviously a need for correction because as I said, I was quite dissatisfied with my performance. Furthermore, I intend to continue competing, therefore there will likely be similar occurrences in the future for which I would like to be better prepared. Moreover, a better performance and specifically making it into finals was incredibly close as I fell while matching the top hold on the last problem in semis. Moreover, there weren’t any interfering factors, therefore it is clear to me, that the only person responsible for that result is myself. And on top of all that I was watching the finals livestream on my train ride back home, which was a continual reminder of what could have been. Really the only factor that wasn’t involved was Exceptionality.
Functionality of Counterfactual thinking
Counterfactual thoughts, however, are not just simply there, they can influence future performance. To utilize them, athletes can be instructed or self-instruct to generate certain counterfactuals, but in order for these to be functional – that is to contribute to improvements – the following three criteria need to be met.
Identification of the correct cause
In order for performance improvements to take place, accurate knowledge about the reasons of previous ones – both good and bad – is needed. Counterfactuals are in essence a type of causal reasoning and as such can provide this knowledge and therefore indications which measurements can and should be taken. However, if the counterfactual is based on a causal assumption that is simply wrong or of little importance, any measures derived from that will have little or no effect on future improvements. Another problem is that the analysis of a problem is often terminated prematurely and something that is actually only symptom of a deeper problem is misidentified as the cause. The identification of the correct cause is made even more difficult by the fact that some of the factors that influence counterfactual thinking described above do not necessarily correlate with actual relevance, meaning one tends to focus on aspects that are not really significant. This is often further aggravated by the fact that there are no quick-fixes for the main success factors. Therefore, counterfactual thinking absolutely requires critical self-reflection and awareness of one’s biases.
For example, often times situational circumstances such as the weather or the time of the day are made responsible for an unsatisfactory performance. But since all athletes are faces with the same conditions that cannot be the actual cause. If anything, the persons inability to cope with these circumstances is. More often however, these kinds of explanations are simply excuses for not having to deal with the real causes.
If the counterfactual accurately identifies an antecedent cause but this cause is simply not under control of the individual that information is of no value. Functional counterfactuals on the other hand focus on what one personally could have done to improve the performance.
A classic example of this is the discussion about height. It may very well be true, that on a specific problem or in a certain competition height was the decisive factor, but one simply cannot change one’s own height.
In that, however, it is also important to question whether factors one considers to be outside of one’s personal control really are or whether there might not be something one could do.
E.g., many athletes rarely work on their mental game, partly due to ignorance but often because they consider their own thoughts to be uncontrollable. This, however, is not the case and even if one doesn’t initially know what to do about it there is always the possibility to get help and thereby gain control.
If the causal relationship identified be the counterfactual is not applicable to any future situation or the athlete does not recognize the appropriate circumstances when they arise, counterfactual thinking will not be of any use, as even though counterfactuals are concerned with events in the past, in the end they can only influence future performances.
A personal example for this is my (unfortunate) tendency to forget whether or where a hold is located on a volume that you cannot see once you’re on the wall. This has costed me more than one top already in competitions and I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on these, yet it happened to me again and again because in the moment I do not realize that now would be the time to apply this hard-won knowledge and memorize where exactly that hold is.
Affective and motivational consequences
Aside from the purely cognitive effects discussed so far, counterfactual thinking also has affective and motivational consequences. In most cases, downward counterfactuals will make one feel better while upward counterfactuals will make one feel worse. Especially the feeling of regret is associated with upward counterfactuals. This negative affect can be quite motivating under certain circumstances and has often contributed to improvement in performance in lab studies. However, as the effectiveness of this strategy depends on several constraints and as excessive upward counterfactual thinking and regret are associated with depression, I think using counterfactual thinking as a long-term motivational strategy is rather risky. Furthermore, most competitive athletes do not have a lack of motivation which would make its use necessary anyway. Downward counterfactuals on the other hand, while making one feel better, also suggest that there is no need for action and thus facilitate complacency which is not a basis for performance enhancement either.
As a result of that, it makes more sense to use counterfactual thinking as a short-term and primarily cognitive strategy in order to identify causes and draw conclusions from the events. To ensure, that the thinking stays functional and doesn’t drift off into pointless wishful thinking it is important to take a very intentional approach. To guarantee that this will happens, the following strategies are helpful
Critical self-reflection and honesty: Both are absolutely necessary to check whether an assumed cause is actually correct.
Talking to another person: Four eyes see more than two. Furthermore, it is often difficult to admit to one’s own weaknesses and confront uncomfortable truths, which is why it can be very useful to go through that process with someone else. However, this person has to be able – at least in this situation – to be brutally honest, because if instead of speaking the truth this person tries to avoid hurting any feelings, it whole point is missed.
Backtracing chains of causation: To ensure, that the identified cause isn’t just a symptom of an underlying problem, causal chains should be backtraced as far as possible or reasonable. At the same time, this can be used to check, whether something one believes to be uncontrollable, actually is or whether there might not be some place or possibility to intervene.
Focusing on one’s own possibilities for action: In order to make sure that any factors under consideration are indeed inside of one’s control, ultimately it is only helpful to focus on one’s own possibilities and actions. However, as described above, counterfactuals tend to focus on these aspects anyway, nevertheless it is important to keep this in the back of your head.
Establishing habits: The biggest threat in regard to the applicability of the new-won knowledge is usually, that situations in which it would be relevant are not recognized. To prevent this, it is necessary to establish habits that guarantee the necessary action will be performed at the appropriate point in time either by automating it or using reminders.
This list is obviously be no means exhaustive, bit these are the strategies, that seem the most useful and have helped me the most. However, in the end it is only important, that all necessary information is extracted out of what happened, learn from it and after that forget about it and focus on the future. And yes, it often is difficult to stop having these thoughts, but (especially with a lot of practice) it is possible.