high achievers

The Art of Patting Yourself on the Back (but not too much)

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

It’s tough for athletes and other high achievers to self-evaluate performance.

To prevent burnout, maintain motivation, and guard your mental health for the long run, it’s important to learn to celebrate yourself on occasion. We should pause to celebrate our own hard work and accomplishments. At the same time, I know I prefer to hold myself to a standard of what I can become, not what I once was.

I always try to remind myself of a quote from one of my very favorite books, The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin (yes, I’ve talked about it here before.) It isn’t always easy for me to take the time appreciate victories in sport or in life, but Waitzkin’s words remind me that I can celebrate and still continue to move forward.

We enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then we exhale, note the lesson learned, and move on to the next adventure.”

If you are uncomfortable judging your own accomplishments, here are a few tips to help you out:

Rely on trusted voices

One of the reasons I valued my relationship with my cycling coach, Dean Golich, so much is that I could always trust him to give me an honest appraisal of my accomplishments. If he thought I could have done better, he wouldn’t hesitate to tell me.

For some, the critiques might have felt harsh. For me, they were just what I wanted. Dean isn’t one to sugarcoat anything. At the same time, he will always acknowledge the things he feels merit his (rather high) standards of praise. That helped me keep my own ambitions in check: if Dean complimented me on something, I knew I needed to pause, take a breath, and give myself some credit.

Find the people in your life that you trust to give you an honest opinion – and don’t confuse this with finding your harshest critics, either. Pick someone who cares about you, understands your ambitions, goals and potential, and when they say “good job,” listen.

Match expectations to circumstances

I’m not training at an elite level anymore, so I have had to modify my goals and expectations for physical performance. I’m also relatively fresh in my new field of journalism, so I have to be careful not to constantly compare myself to reporters with decades of experience.

Just because you have reached a higher level in the past, it doesn’t mean your current victories matter less. Match your goals to your experiences, and celebrate when you reach them.

Check both ends

In my senior year as a high school swimmer, I had two coaches on the pool deck. Grant, the head coach, and Rob, the assistant, had the good cop/bad cop routine down to an art.

“Grant is there to tell me when I need to reach further, and Rob is there to tell me when it’s enough,” I wrote in my journal that year.

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Sometimes when evaluating performance, it helps to use the Grant and Rob method of evaluation: Were there places you cut corners? Did you truly do your best, day-in and day-out, in practice and in competition?

If you can honestly say that you gave everything you had, that’s enough, regardless of where you ended up.

Realize that you are extraordinary

Anyone who puts their full effort and desire into a pursuit, anyone who truly chases their potential, whatever that level might be, is engaged in the same spectacular pursuit.

Acknowledge it.

After I returned from the Rio Olympics, I wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about my fourth-place-finish experience:

Before the race, people told me I was “gold-medal capable.” I guided such platitudes in one ear and out the other. I never truly absorbed my potential, that it could be me. I’ve actually raced at this level for years, but my self-concept apparently had a junk mail filter on “best in the world.” The morning of the race, I was still bleating at Dean: “Is this actually possible?” and then ignoring him every time he said yes. I never believed it until the split second between when I saw the 300 meters-to-go banner and when I looked under my arm to see the winning sprint fly past. 

The reality is—and this is the global lesson part, so pay attention: I was always that good. Wins are never assured, but I always had that potential. I just never let myself enjoy it, and that is a regret. 

Dean, by the way, warned me about this.” 

I’m not likely to be headed back to the Olympics, but I never want to forget that lesson.

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Comments 2

  1. Mara,

    This is simply one of the best articles I have read on this site. Well written, by a remarkable, proven, top – echelon athlete who has been there and done that.

    Thank you! This will be shared with my children – not for only sport but life lesson.

  2. I talk to the young people I coach about this almost every race they enter. It’s harder to do the same to myself. Thanks for the information.

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