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Self-esteem in the athlete

Patrick Cohn explains why athletes must learn to separate self-esteem from their level of performance in sports.

Many athletes and performers I work with often wrongly determine their self-worth by how successful they feel about their sport. When an athlete performs well or feels successful, he or she can feel good about himself or herself. However, the opposite is also true: despair and low self-esteem result when a person does not perform well or views him or herself as a failure.

Athletes are especially vulnerable to this problem of attaching self-esteem to one's performances because they are judged by how well they perform. However, society sends subtle signals that you must achieve in your sport to feel worthy as a person, and that is the trap that many athletes fall into. Also, if you are a perfectionist, it does not help your self-esteem because you have such high expectations and are always so critical and hard on yourself. If you fall into this trap, your emotions, and how you feel about yourself, are heavily influenced by the perceptions of your performance, which can naturally vary from day to day. Thus, one day you have self-esteem, and the next day it erodes due to what you think is poor performance or practice. One athlete in my seminar stated: "Even if I felt I had a flawless performance if I did not get a good reaction or the reaction I was looking for, I feel like a failure." This statement highlights how out of control one can feel about his or her success or failure, and thus make negative judgements about one's performance.

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is the regard you hold for yourself. All of you have a concept of your person (self-concept). If you like your self-concept (who you think you are), then you have self-esteem. Self-confidence is different. Self-confidence is the belief in your ability to perform a task - it is not a judgment. You can have self-confidence, but not self-esteem, and vice versa. Optimally, you want both high self-confidence in your abilities and self-esteem.

Self-esteem should be based on who you are as a person instead of how well you can perform in your sport or how high you go in a sporting career. Think about this: if you take away the part of you who is an athlete, how would you describe yourself? What are the characteristics that define you? This is what self-esteem should be based on. If you feel like you struggle with self-esteem, have hope. Here are some other ideas about gaining self-esteem.

Assume the Role

When you are performing, you are in the role of an athlete. You want to be into that role fully when practicing and performing, but when you leave the sporting arena, it is time to switch roles to other parts of your life and let go of judgments. Do not superimpose the role of an athlete (or how well you can perform) into other areas of your life.

True Friends

People who are your real friends and family members love you for who you are as a person first. They do not judge you based on your performance or change their view of you because of how good you are as an athlete. If they do, they are not your real friends. They like you for what you bring to a relationship as a person, not as an athlete.

Stop the Comparisons

You do yourself harm by making comparisons to other athletes who you think are better or more talented than you are. This only serves to hurt your self-esteem and confidence because you put others on a pedestal and criticize your faults. Everyone is unique. Think about how well you did compare to your last performance instead of making comparisons to others.

Accept Your Body Image

I know many athletes worry about their bodies, not being the perfect type for their sport. No one can be perfect or has the perfect body for their sport. Some people are born with more hand-eye coordination, stamina, or balance, but that is what makes us unique. Accepting your body image is the first step to gaining self-esteem. Make the best of what you have by focusing on your strengths and capabilities as an athlete!

Balance in Life

If your life is sport, you are at greater risk for self-esteem problems because you have "all your eggs in one basket" and cannot separate the different roles in your life. Strive to find a balance in your life with your family, school, friends, and other career aspirations. This will help take the pressure off your sport and allow your self-esteem to grow.

Be Your Best Coach

You are your worst critic, and your best friend wrapped into one. We are often harder on ourselves than we are on our best friends. What would you say to a best friend who is feeling depressed? Be at least that supportive of yourself. Always give yourself words of encouragement and reward after a performance or practice. Pretend you have the most positive coach on your shoulder, offering words of encouragement.

Define Your Self-Concept Outside of your sport

A good exercise is to define who you are outside your sport. Use only descriptions that apply to the characteristics that you bring to every aspect of your life. Make a list of these positive characteristics and review them every day. Do you like what you see? If so, you have self-esteem. Is there something you do not like? If so, work to change that part of you.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • COHN, P. (2006) Self-esteem in the athlete. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 38/ December), p. 9-10

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • COHN, P. (2006) Self-esteem in the athlete [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dr Patrick Cohn works with athletes and teams worldwide from a variety of sports backgrounds. As the president and founder of Peak Performance Sports (Orlando, Florida), Dr Cohn is dedicated to instilling confidence and composure and teaching practical mental game skills to help athletes, teams, and corporate professionals perform at maximum levels.