Ditch the Psychological Safety Net


Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?

If you want to be great, ditch the “psychological safety net.” I’m in the business of (mentally) building champions. I don’t ever go into working with an athlete and just want them to be “good” or average- nope, we ain’t having that! We are working on greatness here, and creating a champion mindset sometimes means calling out underlying patterns that hold athletes back from unleashing their champion mindset.

So, what do I mean by “psychological safety net?”

We all know what a safety net is, but for the purposes of being thorough the definition that the scholarly reference Google gave me was “a safeguard against possible hardship or adversity.” Put that together with “psychological” and we have “a mental process (behavior, acts, cognition) that safeguards us against hardships or adversity.” Obviously this is a good thing when $h*t happens in life that we didn’t plan and stress surfaces that we need to cope with. However, when it comes to building a champion mindset for sport performance or sport career this does us no good!
There is a term in psychology that we call self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is a sneaky psychological safety net that athletes can get caught up in if they are not careful or honest with themselves. The Dictionary of Psychology defines self-handicapping as:

“any behavior or choice in a performance-setting that enhances personal opportunity to excuse failure and accept credit for success….self-handicapping strategy, a psychological ploy by means of which a person provides an excuse for failing a task by purposefully neglecting to prepare, as in neglecting to rehearse before an audition. The purpose (of self-handicapping) is to create an acceptable excuse for an anticipated poor showing so that shortcomings can be attributed to circumstances and not to lack of ability.”

See how sneaky self-handicapping can be? If you look in the definition it says “acceptable excuse.” In our minds we can rationalize “acceptable” and others to validate our rationalizations. This does us no good and is a form of self-sabotage. Don’t get me wrong, there are legitimate reasons for some of our disappointing outcomes, but when there is a pattern then there is a problem. My job is to be able to learn and understand the difference with each individual athlete, so one athlete’s legitimate reason may be another’s self-handicapping pattern and visa versa.

Self-handicapping also shows up when athletes aim low. When you aim low you set the bar low for your performance or abilities, then if you surpass that bar you perceive a “win” and preserve your ego, but if you do poorly, it’s no surprise. Since you predicted it, your ego stays unscathed.
One way that I used to self-handicap was in half-marathons. I would start farther back and tell myself and my husband “Oh I’m just going to start out slow and if I have it then I’ll push it out in the end, but if not then I’m just really glad I finished.” I would also say, “I’m not a pro. This is just my hobby.” When I got real with my self and looked at the reasons I kept selling my self short (aka self-handicapped) it often came down to being afraid to fail or fear of being disappointed.

Many athletes hold on to their psychological safety net (self-handicapping patterns) for many reasons, but the big ones – fear of failure, ego deflation, disappointment, failure to meet expectations, perfectionism, poor distress tolerance, fear of risking taking, staying in the comfort zone, lack of follow through/inconsistent training behaviors and falling into comparisons.

Some examples of psychological safety nets:

    • “I’m too busy. I have so much work.”
    • I have a career. It’s too much of a risk to go pro or start my own business.
    • My nutrition was off (and has been for the last three races).
    • What was my coach thinking with that strategy?
    • I over-biked, wait, no, it was my nutrition!
    • Swimming is a small part of a triathlon, so I’ll keep focusing on my bike.
    • I always race with a wetsuit, so why shouldn’t I train with a pull buoy all the time?
    • All of my triathlon races are in open water, so why bother learning a flip turn? (I used to say this all the time!)
    • All of my triathlon races are freestyle, so why should I do any other stroke in workouts? (Yep, this one too!)
    • I need a better bike/power meter/race shoe/____ (insert name of latest fad gadget)
    • I need to change my bike fit
    • My coach messed up my training plan and I just didn’t feel prepared.
    • I was hiding an injury.
    • I had GI problems.
    • I wasn’t an athlete growing up.
    • My ______ (insert name of gadget) wasn’t working.
    • I’m not a runner/swimmer/ biker/ _____(fill in the blank).
    • It was windy/cold/hot/water was choppy/sun was in my eyes/pavement was bad.
    •  Whenever an athlete is scheduled for a hard training day or “testing day” the athlete is sick or says “today was just an off day. I don’t’ have it in me.”

Where I don’t hear athletes self-handicapping much is the top performing professional athletes. Many of the professional athletes I work with want me to call them out and discuss any patterns they may be unaware of. They welcome the feedback and willingly want to ditch any evidence of self-handicapping. They do this because, one, that is what they hired me for and two, because they are all in and want to master each and every aspect of their performance. They want to be champions! Champions are willing to face uncomfortable truths.

For my triathletes, remember professional triathlete Sebastian Kinele? When he had difficulty fixing a flat during Kona one year owned up to it. He didn’t self-handicap and make up some excuse to please his sponsors or anyone else. He admitted it, laughed about it and I’m guessing made sure that it will never happen again. Sure it sucked and was highly disappointing, but he got through it and went on to race better than ever.

I always say you can’t change what you are not aware of. So check your self before you wreck your self! You don’t have to be a professional athlete to unleash your inner champion. All you have to do is be willing to ditch the safety net and face the hard stuff. Embrace, change and master the sabotaging patterns to get familiar with your real greatness. Now is the time to own it and break through the illusions of fear, powerlessness and self-sabotage. Remember YOU ARE created for greatness!

Shine on, do your thang and OWN IT!
-Dr. G

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Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli

Dr. Petruzzelli is a clinical sport psychologist, triathlete, and certified mindfulness meditation teacher located in Sacramento, California. She works with elite athletes and sports teams across the country. She is a competitive athlete and enjoys practicing yoga, spending time with her family, and traveling.

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