Most sprinters have a low center of gravity (clear exception: “Insane” Bolt). Most distance runners are slender. And most jumpers are tall. This is something that’s bothered me forever because, well, I’m just not! 5’5” (on a good day!) is certainly above average height for an average modern woman but it’s below average for a jumper. So when my motivation wanes and I look around for inspiration, it hardly ever helps to look at other people in my event since most of them look nothing like me!
Except Alice.* She’s not a horizontal jumper but she’s a petite, elite athlete with a storied career in an event dominated by tall people. Looking at Alice is like looking in a mirror – and sports psychologists would say that this simple observation (that we are alike) is a powerful tool for confidence building. The principle of “vicarious experience” gives us a clue as to why. Alice is one of those friends you don’t need to see all the time to maintain a powerful connection to. She’s laid back and funny but fierce, having accomplished everything I aspire to accomplish through sport (and in many ways, life). She’s been to multiple World and Olympic Games representing her island nation, and she’s pushed through slumps in motivation, external doubters and serious physical set-backs, to perform high in her athletic potential consistently, over time (over more than a decade!).
When she retired last year, I asked her about her journey and she said, simply, “every year, people said I was done [for one reason or another]. But I decided ‘that’s not the way this is going to go’…” She decided. Using a decision as a weapon is another topic all together (take a mental note of that concept), and Alice has certainly exemplified that but I won’t linger there. In terms of her physical size (height, weight, proportions), Alice is exactly like me!
Recently, she was in the area (for a track meet of course) so we had dinner together. I greeted Alice with a huge hug and as I did, I suddenly remembered, she’s tiny! I felt like I was hugging a high school student or maybe a slimmer, slighter and slightly younger sister. Her untouchable athletic resume makes her seem larger than life in the mind’s eye, but amazingly, she’s my size. Beyond that, she’s the same complexion as me, we have similar hairstyles, we have similar smiles (the kinds that completely overtake our faces) and our dreams are about the same size. All of these similarities are important for vicarious experience to work.
There are roughly 6 major sources of self-confidence as it relates to sport:
- Performance accomplishments (“I did it before, I’ll do it again”)
- Vicarious experience (experienced through others, explained more below…)
- Verbal persuasion (positive talk from self, coaches, trainers, family, etc.)
- Control of psychological state (preventing excess anxiety)
- Emotional state (clearly needs to be regulated!)
- Imagery experience (multisensory images of successful performance)
Vicarious experience involves deriving self-confidence from watching someone else perform successfully – and this is especially effective when that person has qualities or abilities that closely match your own. Every time I re-connect with Alice, I feel re-charged primarily because as she speaks, I see myself. Inevitably, our conversations meander over to all things track-related from coaches, to teammates, competitions, wardrobe malfunctions and “track hair.” She’s a great friend from whom I learn so much and deeply respect but unlike other friends who have had similar success on the track, she consistently motivates me to be and do better. Much better. My best. I think it’s precisely because she is similar to me in physique and in perspective that vicarious experience kicks in.
Sure, there are expressions about water finding its own level and the importance of getting in where you fit in, and they speak to the same general idea. But these expressions are devoid of a critical ingredient: motivation to achieve higher and re-imagine yourself… Better.
In the art of flight and of life, chose your mirrors wisely and love them! Your mirrors need to be achievers who are like you in some obvious way (be it physique, vision, favorite colors, sense of humor, upbringing, personal style, smile, nationality). They will do more than simply reflect who you are now; they will motivate you to become a better version of yourself by showing you it’s possible, no matter your size. When you find a mirror that consistently reminds you who you are and what’s possible just as you are, cherish it.
*Note: ‘Alice’ isn’t her real name. Obvi.