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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

The Pervasive Habit of Self-Handicapping

As coaches, we've all been there.

The week of the big race comes, and all of the sudden, an athlete has pain in their Achilles. Someone else thinks they might be sick. Yet another comes to let you know they've got three group projects due by Friday, and haven't slept well.

These are all examples of what the American Psychological Association calls "self-handicapping." They define it as "a strategy of creating obstacles to one's performance, so that anticipated failure can be blamed on the obstacle rather than on one's lack of ability. If one succeeds despite the handicap, it brings extra credit or glory to the self."

Self-handicapping isn't exclusive to our athletes. If we look in the mirror, we'd recognize that we do it too. How many times have we told an administrator or coaching peer that our team might not be at our best because of an injury to an athlete, odd travel circumstance, or something similar?

It's a protective mechanism. A race provides a public, observable performance that may threaten our self-esteem or self-worth. By self-handicapping, we've protected our self-esteem by discounting any potential failure and augmenting any potential success.

Sounds good, right?

Not so fast.

In my experience, self-handicapping inhibits growth because an athlete is much less likely to take risks and give 100 percent if there is a cushion to fall back on. In fact, I think that's what some are really most afraid of: that giving 100 percent won't be enough to produce a good result.

Dr. Susan David offers a few helpful strategies to avoid self-handicapping in a Harvard Business Review article she wrote entitled "Don't Sabotage Yourself."

The first is awareness. Simply being aware of the tendency to create obstacles can help someone recognize when they begin to do it.

She also encourages using "what-if's" to create goals, instead of excuses. For example, instead of blaming academic exams, create the goal of more consistently preparing so that the bulk of studying doesn't have to happen the night before. Instead of blaming an illness, create the goal to be more intentional about sleep and better manage time to minimize the risk in the future.

Finally, Dr. David recommends focusing on mastery. The path to mastering any skill involves repeated failure. Look at babies! How do they learn to walk? By trying and falling over. Again and again.

As a coach, my favorite analogy along these lines has been to use X Games athletes as a model. In skateboarding, for example, competing athletes will tap their board on the ground or side of the ramp when they see an athlete go for a big trick and come up short. In a way, it's a sign of solidarity for the effort it takes to execute something difficult. It's saying, "Hey, I see you, and I appreciate you really going for it."

I think we have to cultivate that same sentiment in our sport. The path to better results is to celebrate the effort and audacity it takes to seek those results, whether they actually pan out or not. Then, instead of inhibiting growth, it becomes encouraged.

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