“If you haven’t the strength to impose your own terms upon life, you must accept the terms it offers you.” T.S. Eliot
If you’ve ever listened to athletes talk about their performances after an event or write about them in their “race reports” posted on social media, you’ve probably noticed a trend. Competitive athletes who consistently perform at a high level will most likely attribute their performance to variables that they consider to be within their control, regardless of whether they performed well or poorly. They take responsibility for the outcome and hold themselves accountable, unless there were some unforeseen circumstances beyond their control that determined the outcome. Even in defeat they will congratulate their opponents for doing what needed to be done, while at the same time acknowledging what they neglected to do to meet their own expectations.
Now try and recall the explanations given by competitive athletes who don’t routinely perform as well as they, or others thought they should have. Are they more likely to attribute their performance to outside influences and circumstances that they deem beyond their control? Do they attribute the success of others to luck, fate, or basically anything other than hard work and superior ability? These athletes are less likely to accept responsibility for their performance, and they will continue to attribute future poor performances to forces outside of their control. Consistently high-achieving competitive athletes are more likely to attribute success or failure as being within their control, whereas lower-achieving competitive athletes are more likely to attribute performance outcomes to forces beyond their control. The degree to which an athlete believes that he or she has control over the outcome of a performance is known as Locus of Control. Those who believe that they are the primary cause of an outcome are said to possess an Internal Locus of Control, while those who attribute primary control of an outcome to forces other than themselves are said to possess an External Locus of Control.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am defining competitive athletes as those athletes whose primary objective in competition in to finish at the top, or near the top of their respective categories. It also includes athletes who never finish at or near the top of their respective categories but believe that they can perform at the same level as those who do. Their Locus of Control is most likely to be identified as external. Before competition they often feel anxious and unprepared. Their performance levels have plateaued, they can’t seem to get over the hump, and their less-than-expected results are almost always attributed to someone or something other than themselves. Their primary objective after a poor performance is not to rectify the circumstances that led to the undesirable outcome, but to maintain their self-worth and self-image. Because they believe that external forces led to their performance results, they don’t have any interest in learning what they can do to facilitate better results the next time out, and the cycle continues. They just don’t believe that they posses the skills to adapt and take charge of their destiny because it’s out of their control.
Locus of Control. Credit: kristinasintelligence.weebly.com/
Athletes that possess an internal Locus of Control see things in an entirely different light. They believe that they have the power and ability to influence the outcome of events. In extraordinary cases where they might think that their performance outcome was the result of external forces, they believe that they can adapt their strategies for future events to cope with and overcome such forces. They assume responsibility for figuring out how to deal with external forces because they attribute future successes to themselves. Athletes with an intrinsic Locus of Control perceive their worlds as being more controllable and manageable. After a poor performance, their primary objective is to identify what they need to correct to prevent similar results in the future. They don’t focus on self-worth or what others will think about them. They focus on what it is going to take to get better.
Most athletes probably exhibit internal and external Locus of Control orientations to some extent, but those whose Locus of Control is primarily intrinsic seem to be top performers often. Would it not seem logical then that any competitive athlete would want to adopt strategies and habits associated with intrinsic Locus of Control athletes to assume more control of performance outcomes? Well, it’s not very complicated to do, but it can be uncomfortable for some because it requires that you are totally honest with yourself and others. You must first accept responsibility for your own performances and hold yourself accountable for doing whatever it takes to undertake a relentless pursuit of improvement. It’s like those who suffer from addiction, but never seem to get better because they are in constant denial that they have a problem. They must admit that they have a problem before they can begin to fix the problem. Once an athlete can admit that he or she needs to accept responsibility for their own performances, they can then begin the process of improvement. Athletes seeking improvement need sources of feedback to determine areas for improvement, and how to develop successful strategies for improvement. They must be committed to accessing all resources available to them, such as technology, clinics, camps, and coaches, where objective assessment and evaluation is available.
Go back and read one of your social media race reports, or even ask friends who will be honest with you and find out if you tend to attribute your performances to external forces. If so, make the decision to take control of your own destiny and see more favorable results than when you didn’t take responsibility for your own actions. This is not only true in triathlon, but in life.