Social Comparison Theory An Athletes - A Necessary Evil?

The pressure is always on when you’re an athlete. Whether its from yourself, your coach, your parent in the stands or social media. It can come from many sources, but when we apply that pressure to ourselves, then compare ourselves to others as an athlete, we can fall prey to things like poor self esteem, declines in performance, overtraining, and even injury. The culture of comparison on social media is one especially to note that can even rob you of the joy you have for the sport. We’re going to talk about how to set the right tone for yourself and your performance so that you reduce the amount of time you spend comparing yourself to others.

The Social Comparison Theory

First proposed in 1954 by Leon Festinger, the social comparison theory states that people have an innate drive to maintain stable and accurate appraisals/views of themselves and do so by searching out comparative standards. He then states that there are three fundamental influences with regard to the drive people have in social comparison settings.

First Influence - Self-Evaluations

Social comparisons are used to understand our standing relations to others with regard to our attributes, skills, and social expectations. This is where we compare ourselves to others that are pretty similar to us. This influence helps us develop accurate self-evaluations and where we are with our performance.

Second Influence - Self-Enhancement

Social comparisons help us establish a positive self-image by comparison ourselves to someone who appears to be in a lower standing, ranking, or behind us. For example, if you’re competing in an online leaderboard, this is the comparison to the people who finished the workout behind you. This comparison provides self-enhancement.

Third Influence - Self Improvement

When we compare ourselves to those that are better than us, further than us, or who have what we want, this is the third influence (think more successful, faster, stronger, etc.). We do this in order to see where we can improve our processes or self-improve, as well as how to advance ourselves from where we are, to where we want to be. This social comparison is related to self-improvement.

Social Comparison Theory An Athletes - A Necessary Evil? The Swole Kitchen

The Strive To Be Better

For most people, especially those with a competitive or athletic mindset, we’re always striving to be better. Constantly evaluating, evolving, practicing and improving. Sometimes we seek out the opinions and values of others as compared to our own, maybe someone we respect or aspire to be like, taking their feedback and suggestions to heart so that we can achieve more. When we compare ourselves to those in similar situations or with similar opportunities, this can be a more precise comparison, which gives us a better evaluation of the probability of becoming that person, thing, or achieving that level of performance.

Now when we take these comparisons, theoretically considered ‘upward social comparisons’, and use them with regard to an athlete, person, or position that is far beyond us with different opportunities, situations, or levels, our comparisons can be quite discouraging. In doing so, we can often feel inferior because we fail to realize that the person, place, or thing that we’re comparing ourself to is in a completely different dimensions.

Poor Self Esteem As An Athlete

Psychological theorists believe that when we experience issues with self-esteem, doubt, negativity to discontent, that we’re not comparing ourselves accurately to someone or something that we can benefit from comparing ourselves to. When we do this, our egos are often brought into the picture as a cognitive coping strategy to protect ourselves against such negative or defeating feelings. We call this ‘upward social comparisons’.

These types of comparisons are where, we as athletes, will force ourselves or punish ourselves to do more or do it harder, because we feel so inferior or so far away from where we ultimately want to be. This can turn into unnecessary double days, diet restriction, overlooking mobility and accessory work, overruling what our coach(es) are telling us to do, eventually leading to overtraining, burnout, a lack of joy and in some cases, injuries. Not to mention declining self-esteem and self-confidence in ourselves or our abilities to perform.

It’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with having role models or top-level goals, but it can become damaging when we compare our level 2 or 3 to someones level 9 or 10.

Comparing Yourself To Others ‘Beneath’ You

When we compare ourselves to those who are behind us, who started after us, who finished after us, or who are inferior, these are called ‘downward social comparisons’. While they can be used briefly to look at how far you’ve come in your athletic performance and where you started as compared to where you are now, often that isn’t the case. Instead, we compare ourselves to others while seeking self-enhancement and even a little ego-stroke. When used against others, psychologically speaking, they help to maintain our own self-esteem and ego protection. This may continue further into picking on others, degrading others, or feeling superior to others.

Social Comparison Theory An Athletes - A Necessary Evil? The Swole Kitchen

Comparison Is Necessary As An Athlete

Yes, we can make comparisons in many different ways and different self-domains. However, social comparisons are important for an athlete so that they can continuing to pursue higher levels of self-improvement, image, aesthetic, and ability. Without the strive for something greater, to be better, and to rise higher, the athlete loses that competitive drive and spirit that will stunt them in their performance. However, this is also where social comparisons can bring down an athlete, reducing things like self-esteem, self-confidence, and can increase the prevalence of social pressures from friends, family, stranger, social media, coaches, and so on (especially for women).

In American culture, more so than any culture in the world, we place a great level of importance on aesthetic, physical appearance, and physique, both in and out of sport. In our country we are constantly bombarded with marketing messages, social media, societal pressures, and more, where we compare the body against form, function, and appearance. We often overlook individual talents or differences in upward social comparisons, which can lead to body image issues, body dysmorphia, depression, poor self-esteem, and unstable relationships with our bodies. Not to mention the financial demands and pressures that athletes feel to not only perform, but maintain and improve this image, for social approval and validation.

How To Improve Social Comparison

Look, there’s nothing wrong with pushing the needle with your performance or aesthetic, so as long as you’re able to be aware of the pressures placed on you, that you place on yourself, and how to have both a sport/life balance. Setting the right tone for yourself and your goals is crucial. The matter of fact is this — competition is neutral. It isn’t good or bad, but rather, what we make of it.

We need to define things like success, triumph, practice and failure, so that we can appropriately recognize what our own definition of success and competition is for ourselves, individually. This is how you coach yourself to your best self, not stroke your ego. If you’re always focused on winning and nothing less, trust me when I say, you’re in for a disappointment. This is where you’re going to dip into the negative effects of comparison, regardless of what type. Effort and personal improvement are the two biggest things you as an athlete have control over. You control what you do with them, how you use them, and how consistently you bring them, every day.

Social Comparison Theory An Athletes - A Necessary Evil? The Swole Kitchen

Earn Your Own Self Respect

When we seek the validation from others, when we only listen to the opinions of others, and when we overrule our own inner voice for the voice of our egos, we lose our heart in the game. Like we mentioned previously, there’s nothing wrong with having mentors, role models, or idols even, the people that you aspire to be like most. Yet when we measure ourselves against such great differences, whether it be in level, training, opportunities, or otherwise, we only validate immediate success as well as those feelings of inferiority. If we don’t do this, then we get rid of the idea of immediate success, and focus back on those elements of our performance, health, and ability that we control, like effort.

Comparing Yourself To Others: Takeaway

Look, comparison is completely normal and a healthy part of being an athlete. However, it is important to note that we’re often naturally inclined to have negative thoughts and perspectives, especially in the face of a country and culture who prides itself on how we look rather than how we perform. When scrolling on social media, choosing who to follow or admire, make sure that you’re choosing people and pages that empower you, that inspire you, that motivate you and challenge you to rise above where you are now in pursuit of better abilities. Not the ones that leave you feeling judged, ego-driven, defensive, with poor self-esteem and self-image.

Your efforts and your abilities matter at every single level, and if you’re not happy now, grateful for your abilities, your opportunities, and your effort, then I can tell you this, you won’t be at the highest level. Seek that positive reinforcement and remember that being an athlete is a gift, one that can be taken away at any moment. Maximize your gratitude, give your best effort consistently and often, and watch the negative comparison trickle away. 

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