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Castles by Ants – Episode 8: ATHLETE MODIFICATION

An ongoing series about psychology in the world of sport

While there is some discussion about masks and just how negative personality modifications are, when we discuss sport, we get a much sharper black and white answer. And it is precisely the processes found in sport that prove the correctness of the path taken by psychological systems in this field! A manager can roleplay for a long time, as its inaccuracy is revealed only in rare, critical situations; an athlete can also choose to play a role, but unfortunately, its authenticity is revealed during the first important match or competition. In order to successfully maintain the behaviour that differs from our personality in the long-term, a high degree of concentration is needed. It’s quite similar to when an actor learns a role. Though sooner or later it becomes routine, the script must be remembered; you can improvise the movements, but not too much because the basics must work perfectly; otherwise, the scene will fall apart. The same is true with assumed behaviour. After a while — in two years at most — it can certainly become routine, but since it is not natural, it still requires constant concentration. And in sport, very few can maintain it. Of course, there can be an “unprecedented talent” who is so much better than the others that they can simply be the best in the world even while losing 30% of their concentration, but to trust in this is not necessarily smart. This phenomenon can exist in individual sports, but it cannot exist in team sports. After all, our player can be the best centre in the world, and for her to be the best centre in the world it is enough to use 70% of her abilities, but she’s still part of a team. Because 70% is enough for her to be the best in the world, but it is not necessarily the case at the team level, and the team needs that her wasted 30% in most cases. In addition, the assumed behaviour, also known as the “short-term mask”, can only be used in a relaxed situation. When we talk about a crisis, we automatically go back to our roots. When we can’t think with a cold head what to do because there is no chance for it, our personality takes control. Well, while this may happen every 5-10 years for an average person, an athlete may have to experience it every other day during a world championship. Very few athletes can say that for them, a World Cup final is a “relaxed situation”, or that they have such a routine that the challenge “can be solved by the assumed behaviour”. Although it is true that, let’s say, a player’s sixth Champions League final can be like that, as the stakes are huge, but the same stressful environment has been experienced five times before, meaning the mind has the opportunity to learn and adapt to the situation. But there are few such athletes in the world, and they have almost always reached the top by being their true selves. But this could happen, theoretically! This is precisely why sport is thankless: the analyst gets immediate answers on whether they have adequately identified the situation, assessed the athlete, and provided a good set of tools to manage them.

Reasons for Athlete Modification

So far in our development programmes, we have identified three major causes for an athlete’s personality modification. The first is the expectation of the coaches. Whatever level an athlete reaches in their career, the opinion of the current coach has a significant impact on their performance and future career. Coaches can make a deep impact on a team, and in some cases, it works until a certain point! Of course, coaches do not approach practices thinking “I am going to rearrange everyone’s personality for the team’s success”. We are talking about more casual actions. For example, if a coach has a rigid system and wants to put her current players into that system. When we say to a creative, “Individual” player that she should aggressively defend the opponent’s key player, and therefore, she should focus only on defence, a major behaviour modification is immediately triggered. After all, this type of player wants to shine, score, and be celebrated, all of which are obviously much harder to achieve via defence. Nothing strange happened; the coach simply wanted to take advantage of the player’s known physical ability, movement, and intensity, but she unintentionally triggered a significant shift in behaviour. If this player is in her second year with the same coach, then we are not just talking about behaviour, but personality modification. But this is not necessarily a bad direction — let’s talk it through — if the player can perform this task from match to match, then the team’s results will improve. That’s true. This will make the player uncomfortable, and it doesn’t matter much if someone loudly applauds her after a good defensive effort. Only the knowledgeable fans can appreciate her impact, but she wants to be celebrated by everyone. More problems arise if her team plays a decisive match in which the opponent leads, and her defensive plays become critical. She will want to “Individualise” her defence because she feels the crisis and stress, and she can no longer focus on her coach’s instructions. That is, she takes it upon herself to go for reckless steals. This, of course, breaks down the defence, and the result, or better yet, the lack thereof, is all but guaranteed. So, she pushes the coach into a completely unpredictable, unplanned situation, for what there will be no solution because, in the coach’s system, this player is the stable defensive base. I could have described this process only in theory about 10 years ago, but since then I was fortunate enough to see this Individual defence style in person during the European Championships and the World Championships. And the results were exactly as I described above. This is just a typical example of a personality modification made by coaches, but the list goes on. If the coach is unaware of the player’s true personality, they will, in fact, be flying blind during the competition and may at any time experience excruciating surprises where all they can do is fold their arms, raise their eyebrows, and watch their plans crash and burn!

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Castles by Ants – Episode 9: Modifications from the Athlete’s Environment