As a coach, I know a few things about human nature. Understanding the individuals you are working with is key to motivating them to improve performance, push beyond their current abilities, and most importantly, believe they are capable. And I’m not just talking about confidence here, there are many athletes out there who are confident in the tasks they already know they can do and can deliver a consistent performance at that level, over and over again. However, getting your competitors to push into the unknown where its painful, and scary, and there is no promise of success is a whole different ballgame.
There is a lot of science out there on human behavior. One of the most intriguing concepts to me is the science of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons in the brain that are thought to be responsible for us learning observed behavior and empathy. In a nutshell, we tend to mirror what we see. If you are anxious and enter a room full of calm people, your anxiety will lessen. If you are nervous at the start of a race or before your lift in competition and your coach is confident and focused, you will be more confident and focused. If you attend a training session with individuals who have better technique, more strength, or who push themselves harder than you, your training session will be of higher quality than when you train by yourself.
Basically, who you surround yourself with both in competition and in practice will influence your performance. The same is true in life.
I had to have a talk with my middle school cross country team last week about being supportive and lifting each other up. As you can imagine, what some middle school kids think is funny, others find obnoxious or even cruel. After making very clear what behaviors make one a “jerk” whether they realize it or not, we talked about what being kind and supportive to one another can do for their performance. The smiles on their faces as they described what it felt like when they wanted to quit, but a teammate came and ran alongside them or their teammates cheered them on were amazing. And its true. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. A kid will be out of gas, hurting, wanting to give up, and they still have a quarter mile left to go. And here come their teammates running them in. And all of a sudden that kid has another gear.
Unfortunately, in life in general, we don’t always think about the quality of our interactions with others. There is a lot of talk in the news these days about bullying, but I routinely see full grown adults acting in ways that I would never tolerate in the children I coach. I see it everywhere, in social media and in real life. A lot of people in this world confuse assertive with being a jerk. When you take someone who is self-important, rude, and arrogant and bring her into a group that is ordinarily pleasant and cooperative, it changes the dynamic of the group. Just as mirror neurons can enable a positive change in self-perception and ability, they can also cause negative changes. Being around toxic individuals makes us anxious, uncertain, and less likely to expect or demand better behavior. In other words, it can turn a pleasant group of people into an anxious, ineffective group. Motivating people through disappointment and fear may work for the short term, but it produces anxiety and burnout over time.
The lesson here is to carefully evaluate those you spend time with during the day. Who are the people who are going to lift you up? Who are the people more likely to bring you down? Sometimes we have no control over who we get to spend our time with, but recognize how their behavior may be influencing you. More importantly, recognize how you can influence their behavior in turn simply by choosing to be positive. Even the most toxic individuals can sometimes be forced to behave themselves if there is a positive and powerful influencer in the room. When we make an effort to be kind and understanding and be good to others, we are more powerful than we can imagine in making a positive difference in this world.