As a performance psychologist who has worked for decades in the elite sport sphere, this is the truest thing I know. High performance shouldn’t hurt people. In that spirit, I help athletes to work with their thinking and befriend their emotional landscape so they can perform with less cognitive or emotional turmoil. I help coaches value taking care of themselves first, to meet athletes where they are (not where they should be), and to use methods of instruction and inspiration over punishment in their work.
I needed help to get here. This resounding truth was only recently delivered to me by someone who had spent time listening to me talk about my business, to my struggle to define exactly what it is that I deliver and stand for. I was saying things like, “I want to help make performance more sustainable” which is true, but also has become something of a cliche. Isn’t everyone touting the idea of sustainability these days? Anyway, this person said, “I have been listening to you talk about your business and I hear you saying…”
And as soon as those words "high performance shouldn’t hurt people" come out of his mouth, I knew them to be powerful and true. Words I can get behind and feel proud to say when people ask me the invariable, “so what do you do?” question.
I help people to perform better without hurting themselves or others in the process.
But what does this really mean? I can hear the voices of skeptics in my head, dismissing my mantra as soft drivel. The reality is, preparing and executing high performance is often painful. There is some truth to the old chestnut, “no pain, no gain.” So to be fair to the skeptics, and acknowledge the reality that underpins high performance, let’s distinguish between pain and hurt.
Pain is Part of the Process
On the physical side of high performance, especially in those domains like sport and dance, pain is part of the process. If you are not experiencing some discomfort, you are not working hard enough. The science of physical adaptation to training is clear. Muscles adapt and get stronger after they exert a given level of force, have time to recover, and integrate the effort. So yes, there’s the pain of adaptation we all have felt after a workout. On the other side of the coin, push adaptation too hard and our pain becomes hurt. Injury. Overtraining. So it’s a spectrum. We seek to encourage adaptation while stopping short of performance stoppers like physical injury, chronic fatigue, or overtraining syndrome.
There’s an equivalence on the mental side of the house. On the journey to improvement no matter the domain, we must confront and learn to cope with the pain of our failures and struggles, the discomfort of accepting critical feedback, or the frustration of learning that isn’t happening fast enough. We must learn to answer the scary questions that doubt delivers. To deny those realities or the emotional fallout they create is to make the journey to excellence that much harder, if not impossible.
To be clear, then, pain is part of the high-performance game.
Hurt, On The Other Hand, Does Not Belong
Where we tip from necessary, instructive pain over to hurt is when we even inadvertently use shame and fear as weapons. Against ourselves and others. When we are inhumane, meaning that we stop seeing ourselves or those we work with as human beings but as commodities. When we belittle or ridicule. When we name-call. When we shift from behavior critique to character assassination. When we literally punish ourselves or others for mistakes, or worse, for being who we are. When we negatively label. Hurt also occurs by omission. When we ignore or fail to celebrate success. When we fail to catch learners doing right. When we ignore or minimise our own progress. When we defy the brain’s limitations and create stress or pressure too high to cope with. When we tip over into overwhelm and even trauma.
To be equally clear, it is my contention that hurting/inflicting harm - toward ourselves or others - should never be associated with high performance. Or any performance, for that matter.
Getting Better at the Mental Side of Things
The mental side is harder to see, therefore, to understand. And what we can’t see, are only guessing at, misinterpret, ignore, or are unaware of - cannot be dealt with accurately or empathically. Or in many cases, at all.
We default to equating the mind to a muscle and use terms like mental toughness that sound good but perpetuate an incorrect understanding of how the mind and brain work. As if our difficulties with thinking or working with our emotions are just a matter of will or effort. Control your thinking, dismiss your emotions! How hard can it be?
Except that it’s impossible to do either. John Sullivan and Chris Parker authored a compelling book on brain functioning, the title of which says it all: The Brain Always Wins. Pick a fight with your brain or your mind? You will lose. Get angry about someone else’s mental lapse? Most of us know when we have screwed up and don’t need you to tell us. Venting your frustration or anger may help you, but rarely improves the performance of the person already suffering from a performance mistake. It just digs a deeper hole for any performer to get out of.
I will share more about what we can do to harm less and thrive more next time. Stay tuned!
Allow me to close with this commonly held (if factually incorrect!) Hippocratic Oath reinterpretation.
First, do no harm.
Harm has no place in high performance.
If you want to work out how to harm less and thrive more, I can help. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
In case you missed my main message :), high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want while doing less damage to yourself or your people. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me email@example.com