(Self-) Image is Everything

Want to unlock your performance and can’t figure out why your hard work isn’t paying off like you think it should? The problem may not lie in what you do, but instead in how you think. Specifically, how you think about yourself.

Periscope, Engine, and Throttle

World and Olympic Champion shooter Lanny Bassham discusses human performance in his book, “With Winning In Mind,” and in what he calls his Mental Management System™️. He uses an analogy that I find helpful and instructive:

He likens us humans to submarines, and says that our conscious mind is the periscope that sees and interprets what is happening around us and makes decisions as we perform. Our subconscious is the engine, which sets the speed at which we can perform. Much ink has been spilled on conscious and subconscious mind in performance. However, there’s another, seldom discussed component, self image. Self-image is the throttle, that governs how much of the engine we make use of at any given time.

Granted, no amount of positive self-image will overcome a lack of conscious and unconscious skill. However, if one lacks a positive self-image it will radically inhibit one’s ability to get the most out of their subconscious performance potential. Basically, even if you don’t suck, thinking you do suck when it’s “go-time” can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone is playing not to lose, and to limit the embarrassment of performing poorly instead of letting it rip confidently and playing to win, that can have a severely negative impact on your performance.

Simply put, confident self-belief is an essential part of performance.

The Father Becomes the Pupil

I’ve gotten a first-hand lesson in this principle the last couple months from my 17-year-old daughter. She attends an athletically elite mid-size public high school (that’s pretty outstanding academically, too). Like her mother at the same age, our daughter Anna is a runner, competing in cross-country in the fall and as a 800m, 1600m, and 3200m in the spring. That’s the half mile, mile, and two mile for you metric haters.

Since she was 11 or 12, it’s been obvious she’s had tremendous potential as a runner. However, her performance for years was middling to decently good, only teasing flashes of outstanding performance. I was perplexed, because she is driven, a maniacally hard worker, highly competitive, and seemed to do all the things she needed to do to be among the best, instead of merely pretty good. I’ve always been supportive, but admit that I was at a loss about how to help her get over what seemed to be a mental hurdle

Here’s a bit of necessary back story: Anna has run her entire high school career with an amazing teammate and friend who is a year older than her, who the ladies on the track team jokingly call “coach” because she’s so responsible as the team leader. This older girl is a close friend whom Anna looks up to and has always respected tremendously, and my daughter has always finished 10-20 seconds behind this older girl in their common races. I never gave it much thought, and just always assumed the team captain was just faster than Anna.

Well, earlier this spring, she had a track meet at a small Texas college that had enough teams that it necessitated two heats in the distance races. I learned that Anna and her teammate who always beat her were in different heats and wouldn’t be running together in the mile. Right before my daughter’s heat, I remembered Bassham’s “throttle” analogy for some reason and it hit me. I said to my wife, “I wonder if our daughter has just subconsciously accepted that her proper place is 10-20 seconds behind her teammate and captain, and this is influencing her performance. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if she blew away her personal record in the mile tonight, and actually beat her teammate’s time.”

“(S)he’s Starting to Believe” -Morpheus

Sure enough, our daughter obliterated her old personal record (PR) in the mile by running a 6:04, and beat her senior teammate for the first time ever, by two seconds. That shocked her. Not too long after that she broke six minutes and ran a mile in the 5:50s. Then she came home one day from school and said, “I just found out today that I’m ranked first in the district based on my mile times.”

Learning she could beat her “faster” teammate, she was suddenly always faster than her, every time. Learning she was the fastest miler in the district unlocked a new level of performance, and suddenly she was showing that weekly growth I’d always hoped for but hadn’t seen. Our daughter suddenly knew she was fast. She didn’t hope to be fast, or want to be fast. She’d accepted the fact that she was fast, and that became how she saw herself. Thinking of herself as fast and building an earned self-image of being seriously fast actually made her faster. Crazy, right? Her throttle was suddenly wide open.

On the day of the district track meet, which she expected to win, she woke up throwing up. She was terribly ill all day, throwing up, trying to stay hydrated, and napping between events. but insisted on running. She ran a 6:03, her worst time in weeks, but still just barely good enough for fourth place, the last spot to move on to the Area Track Meet. Without that change in self-image, I don’t think there’s any way she would’ve been able to turn in such a gutsy performance.

Objectively, examining her PR time against her competitors at the Area Meet, she was the seventh fastest runner in the mile out of eight runners. I expected her to set a new PR but didn’t know if she’d make the top four again and move on to the Regional Track Meet. I expected the Regional and State Championship Track Meets would have to wait until her senior year.

Throttle Wide Open

She had other plans. In the most competitive region in the state for distance runners, she placed fourth behind three of the fastest runners in the state and set a new PR of 5:38, a solid 15 seconds of improvement from her previous best. She’ll be running at Regionals soon, and privately I figured based on this regional being tougher than others she’ll probably have to wait until next year to make it to the State Finals. Then I got this text.

She’s slowly accepting, “I’m actually really, really fast,” and it’s transforming her performance. (Also, my then toddler added the gibberish letters behind my wife’s name in the phone.)

Granted, all the other runners can improve too, and it isn’t merely the top eight runners that go to State. It’s the top two from each region, and a ninth competitor who is the fasted regional bronze medalist which means she isn’t guaranteed a shot even if she is among the eight fastest. Still, she’s going to run faster believing she’s fast and we can see her determination and performance increase with each data point she accepts that says, “Anna is awesome at running fast.”

Obviously that’s a long story, and I make no apologies for bragging on my daughter, but I’ve never seen a better example of an improvement in someone’s self-image unlocking another level of performance. So I’d recommend reading Bassham’s book, and considering how your self-image, and listening to that negative voice in your head, may be holding you back. Whether it’s sports, painting, musicianship, shooting, or any other endeavor you’ve got to put in the work, but the work will be for naught if you cannot cultivate a positive self-image. This probably means testing yourself or competing, and giving yourself a chance to prove to your self-image, “Hey, I really am pretty good at this.” So get out there and start building to self-image today, friends. Self-image is everything.

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