Athletic Performance vs Athletic Experience

Prior to, and during the 2000 Olympics in Australia I worked with several teams and athletes in preparation for the games. At that time I found myself becoming increasingly aware of the distinction between experience and performance at a major athletic competition. In part, this originated for me many years previously when an athlete that I worked with for many years described his Olympic experience as "three hundred serious athletes and ten thousand at summer camp." This may be a rather harsh indictment and an overstating of the situation, however he was making the comparison to the professional tour on which he traveled where the level of commitment is driven by an athlete's knowledge that their livelihood is derived from their performance success.

My view of this difference is that a performance is based on the desire to do all that you can to ensure that you do your best while recognizing that this is independent of the outcome. The satisfaction lies in knowing that, regardless of the outcome, you did all that you could to increase the likelihood of success. This is a function of competence, or how you feel about yourself, rather than competition, which involves constantly comparing yourself to others. If you are comfortable with yourself, sport is a wonderful place to be whereas constant comparison to others can make it very stressful.

In comparison, experience results simply from having been there. An athlete may indicate that although they enjoyed the experience, they were overwhelmed by it and were not satisfied with their performance. They may admit to having been distracted and unable to focus and prepare appropriately for competition. This suggests that major events, which are in many ways festivals of sport, place special demands on athletes and teams to remain very disciplined and manage distractions well, as there may be more of them than is usually experienced in their competitive program. What constitutes a distraction is, of course, an individual matter. Issues such as location, accommodation, climate, press and media, family and friends, teammates and other athletes, and coaching staff will be experienced in unique ways. Take for example living in an athlete village. For some, this will be managed well and present minimal distractions and for others it will completely overwhelm them and reduce their readiness to compete.

The same circumstance is experienced in a very different manner in different individuals. For me, this means that major events need to be managed well and athletes need to anticipate, and prepare for, the unique distractions that may be present. If the goal is to produce a best performance, then proper management of the experience will be necessary. Clearly this may involve some very difficult decisions in the pre-competitive period such as the role that family and friends will play, whether sightseeing will be possible, how much contact with other athletes will occur, and whether or not other events in the competition should be attended.

In some ways I think of this in terms of making right choices. Ultimately it is the athlete or the team that must decide how disruptive particular activities will be. Performance and experience are not incompatible, however the latter may present some challenges for the former, which will be increased in major competitions. This distinction has become even clearer to me since the Olympics, as I have become more aware of athletes who come away from major competitions with some regret in knowing that they did not perform to the best of their ability as they did not manage the circumstances well i.e. make right choices. This is compared to those who draw complete satisfaction in knowing that, independently of the outcome, they performed to the best of their ability as they managed the experience in a positive manner.

Dr. David Cox is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. He has served as sport psychologist for many sports organizations at both the amateur and professional ranks during the past fifteen years.

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