Why you compare yourself to other athletes

This article dives into the psychology of comparison and gives you concrete tips to navigate this complex landscape, pay attention to your mental game and, ultimately, your ability to perform. 

Picture of Av: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Tränare.
By: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer.
Apple and Pear in sports gear comparing at tennis court.

If you're an athlete who has fallen into the swamp of constantly measuring yourself against others, you're probably wondering why your mind is constantly throwing you into a world of comparisons with other athletes? Whether you're on the field, in the gym or scrolling through social media, it's easy to fall into the trap of measuring your success against others. But why does this happen, and more importantly, how does it affect performance and well-being? Read on to find out. 

Why do athletes compare themselves?

Why do athletes constantly compare themselves to others? It may feel like part of the game, but there's more to it than that. We'll look at why you might be measuring your success against others and how it affects you. From natural instincts to the pressures of the sporting world, we explore why measuring yourself against others is so common and how it plays out in your sporting life.

1. social comparative theoryYou are not alone in this. It's part of human nature, according to social comparison theory, and some athletes compare themselves all the time. In the sports world, where rankings and statistics are king, it is almost impossible not to compare yourself with others.

2. Reflection of self-esteemYour achievements and progress sometimes feel like the only measure of your worth. So when you perform well, you feel on top of the world. But when someone else shines brighter, it can feel like a blow to your self-worth.

3. Evolutionary reasonsYour ancestors needed this to survive. Today, the dangers are not the same, but that instinct lives on, especially in competitive environments like sport.

4. Cultural and social influences: Society and sports culture screams "Be the best!" and it's easy to buy into that idea that you have to outdo everyone to be anything.

5. Insecurity and uncertainty: Am I good enough? Can I really do this? Comparisons can be a way to seek answers to these questions, but often they only lead to more doubts.

6. Goals and motivation: Sometimes you can find drive in striving to reach or surpass another athlete's level. However, there is a fine line between inspiration and destructive comparison when you constantly start comparing yourself to others.

Negative consequences of comparisons

Comparisons are not just internal distractions; they can have real consequences - both for your mental health and your sports performance. They can reduce your joy and satisfaction, create unnecessary stress and pressure, and even impair your performance. When your focus is on others instead of your own development and what you should be doing, it's hard to be in the moment - where the state of flow resides. Let's break this down:

1. reduced self-esteem When you are constantly measuring yourself against the other athletes, it can be difficult to see your own value. If you don't perform at the same level as someone you look up to, it can feel like you're not good enough, which becomes destructive. This can lead to a downward spiral of self-criticism and doubts about your own abilities.

2. anxiety and stress Constant comparison, especially in other sports, can lead to increased anxiety and stress, especially if you feel you can't live up to the standards you see in others, which can significantly damage your self-confidence. This stress can affect not only your mental health but also your physical health, as prolonged stress can affect everything from sleep quality to immune function.

3. loss of motivation Ironically, a desire to be like someone else can actually undermine your own motivation. If you continually compare yourself and feel that you will never reach another athlete's level, you may begin to question why you are even trying.

4. loss of focus: When you are busy comparing, it is easy to lose focus on your own goals and what you need to do to achieve them. Your focus shifts from your own development to worrying about how you stack up against others.

5. Dissatisfaction and envy: Constant comparisons can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and envy, which can poison your experience of the sport. Instead of feeling joyful about your own success, you can get stuck in a cycle of resentment about the success of others.

6. risk of burnout When one constantly compares themselves to others and feels like they never measure up, they may be at risk of experiencing burnout. Burnout occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet constant demands, which can lead to a diminished love of the sport and even consider quitting.

Understanding these negative consequences is the first step towards developing a healthier approach to competition, adversity and personal achievement. By shifting the focus from comparison to personal development and self-improvement, you can find a more sustainable and satisfying path in your sporting journey. To read more about this, visit our blog on sports psychology.

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Strategies for managing comparisons

You can of course do different things if you want to learn how to deal with this comparison and feel better. I will now share what the researchers support and what has generally been of great importance for myself and everyone I have worked with during my years as a mental coach. Use my strategies and over time you will prevent going back into old behaviors. Just keep in mind that every situation where you are compared becomes valuable, and you will need to practice more than you did before to develop and grow. But this greatly increases your chances of seeing the fastest possible change. 

1. raising awareness One of the most powerful tools for dealing with comparisons is to develop awareness. This means becoming aware of when and why you compare yourself to others. Start by observing your thoughts. When you notice that you start measuring yourself against others, stop and reflect on what triggers these thoughts. Is it insecurity, competitiveness, or perhaps a desire to improve? 

2. realize that you are playing a zero-sum gameEach person is unique, with their own set of experiences, strengths and challenges. When you compare your journey to someone else's, you are comparing apples to oranges. It's not fair to you or the other person - which only leads to you doing both of you a disservice, which leads to you getting better and better at thinking negatively and constantly comparing yourself to others. Remember, there are many different paths to success in sport.

3. Choose not to participateNext time you feel the urge to fall into these destructive thoughts, try switching tracks. Instead, think about your own progress and what you are doing well by highlighting three things - get inspired and affirm them several times if you have to. Then do the same with the person you're comparing yourself to by acknowledging and highlighting the good things they do/are, as something positive. The only way to get away from comparison is to consciously refuse to participate in comparison behavior. Which in turn leads to the fact that, over time, you start comparing yourself less often.

Closure

Navigating the world of sport without falling into the temptations of comparison is no easy task, but it is possible. By being aware of when and why you compare yourself and using strategies to manage these impulses, you can improve not only mental strength but also your ability to perform. If you want to dive deeper into how you can strengthen your inner game, check out my services on mental training. Together we can design a plan to help you reach your full potential, both on and off the field.

Contact me to explore how we can work together to strengthen your mental game and take your performance to the next level.

And remember, in sport as in life, you are on your own journey. Focus on it, and the results you desire will follow.

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About the author

Picture of Tommy Davidovic
Tommy Davidovic

Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer who helps athletes get guaranteed change and results fast. Creator of the Flow Mindset method that has helped athletes around the world break their old records and made competition fun again.

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