If I look back over my career as a sports scientist working in elite high-performance, there is one key concept that I wish I had had in place much earlier. I came across this concept, received some training and acquired some understanding – about a decade into my career in high performance and know full well if I had got to grips with it earlier I would have been far better off. In fact, I’ll go as far to say that I would rate it as highly as ‘the most important, foundational capacity professional’ one can possess (bold statement hey?). I would rate it above technical skill, communication, interpersonal skill, team-working, leadership, innovation, and the rest – the reason being is that all of these other skills can be built upon this one perspective. What is it? Self-awareness!
In terms of self- awareness, I had always been aware that I existed (except perhaps the first few years), which is always handy! I’d even go as far as saying I had an existential awareness of my place in the wider universe (“We’re all just dust in the wind, man”). While I had awareness (levels 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) what I lacked was a deep understanding of how I perform. In the early stages of my career, when I received feedback, I would normally take offence or struggle to contextualise it. A performance director once said to me, “You’re a bit of an Exocet. We can knock you off path, but your heat-seeking abilities kick in and you find another path”. At first this feedback was taken as criticism, but self-awareness training helped me recognise the strengths and weaknesses that I possess.
When I first encountered psychological profiling tools I was quite sceptical. I had read about the Barnum effect (based on the famous circus man’s catchphrase, “There’s something for everyone”). Experiments showed that when individuals underwent a ‘diagnostic test’ and then a week later were provided with a report based on their responses they rated the reports highly for accuracy (4.26 out of 5). The twist was that all participants were given the same report, i.e. we like strong positive statements about ourselves. Astrology, fortune telling, aura readings all utilise/cash in on the same concept. However, the one key difference, is that the most effective personality tests replay what you have chosen, not just tell you what you want to hear. The best self-awareness tools extend what you have chosen and provide you with guidance as to how this can spill over to the detriment of your effectiveness.
There were several positive effects of utilising such a tool in the UK high performance system;
– The individual was bolstered. There is an immediate reaction to reading, hearing a report that holds the mirror up, “That’s a bit freaky, have you been talking to my parents?” This is normally followed by, “I have always known it, but not acknowledged it”. This is then followed by, “Yes this is me, and that’s ok!”
– Team tensions were diffused. This was an incredible observation to make as such a tool was implemented. People just simply understood, recognised and respected each other’s differences. Rather than hearing, “It really frustrates me that X spends forever pouring over the information”, you could hear, “X’s super-strength is the analysis, what would we do without them?” Take a look at some other research showing this effect in other industries.
– People and teams began to flex their styles to get the best out of each other. Rather than thinking, “This is me, deal with it”, self-awareness training teaches you to adapt your style to better work with people and situations. It teaches you that you can do and be all features of effective performance, but it might require more energy to be effective in the areas that don’t come as naturally.
Forward to the 2020s and I’m seeing that such tools get you 90% of the way there and then if there is buy-in then you have to work much harder for the remaining 10%. People like the stickiness of blues, reds, greens and yellow, MBTI codes etc, but if everything revolves around these models you’ll have a limit to what you can achieve. The other issue is that people like a label (it simplifies things for them, but increasingly people and society don’t like a label. In a world much more aware of the negatives of putting people in a box maybe ‘typing’ ourselves is not a move in the right direction.
Self-awareness is a bit like base camp at Everest…getting there is a success in itself. Spending time at the self-awareness base camp is necessary to get familiar with it. When you stretch your legs into the higher climbs of high performance, each time you go up and feel the stresses of new heights, you benefit by returning to the base camp of self-awareness to gather yourself, reflect, de-brief, understand yourself to a greater depth before you kick on to the higher heights.
If you don’t fancy delving into deep self-awareness, but you could do with a dose of thinking, then I’d suggest you ask yourself three questions;
-What are you like on a good day?
-What are you like on a bad day?
-When have you stretched yourself to perform effectively in a way that isn’t your natural style, and how can you tap into this to ensure more consistent high performance?
If you want to dig a bit deeper then ask others around you;
-When have I been at my best, what was it about how I performed that you noticed?
-When have I struggled to be effective, what was it about how I performed that you noticed?
-Specifically, how can I improve my performance further?
So, I would say the base camp of high performance, the veritable square one of high performing self, is understanding self. You can go on up the mountain without it, make good progress and still achieve. But I suspect without it you will always be slightly less able, slightly less aware, slightly less effective if you don’t have it in your armoury, and if you’re stretching your own possibilities, you’ll return to it eventually.