How Player Comparisons Can Hurt Athletes

We hear it all the time, player X is compared to player Y. It is a regular part of the talk surrounding sports at all levels- that’s why there are rankings of all kinds.

However, we don’t really stop to think about how comparing players can become a damage for some of the players involved, especially if the comparison is close to home like a teammate. Comparisons can be a trap that both the parents and the athlete themselves fall into and its helpful to know how it can hurt, and how to avoid it.

Loss of confidence and focus

Player confidence is rooted in how good they think they are at a sport. If you are constantly comparing your performances the stats you rack up over a season and the prizes that you are given to that of other players it is likely that you are denting confidence by making yourself seem and feel inferior.

If you are focusing your energies on directly comparing how you perform in relation to one of your peers, then you are always looking over your shoulder at what they are doing. That means you are not focusing fully on the most important thing- which is improving YOUR level of performance. Your main focus should be on reaching your own potential within your own timeframe.

With the right context, the achievements of others can be used constructively as a motivator to improve and reach higher heights. However, if the comparisons take on a negative tone consisting of you constantly magnifying your weaknesses and worrying about them this is something that could affect your performance and achievement.

No athlete is the same

As much as we like to use comparisons in sport, such as the common example of the young college athlete being compared to an established professional, the fact is that no athlete is the same because no person is the same. Each athlete has their own strengths, weaknesses, variances in technique and execution so it makes no sense to compare them.

This is especially important to remember at youth level (under 18), where all athletes are developing and the rates of development being experienced are different for each individual. Two baseball players may be the same age but one might be more physically advanced than the other. It’s possible that having experienced their growth spurts at different stages, one might have the capacity to reach the catcher on one bounce with a throw from the outfield while the other might not be able to reach the catcher that efficiently or with the same velocity of throw.

Comparisons can do harm to the second athlete in this case, putting pressure on them that doesn’t need to be there. A fundamental aspect of good performance is understanding YOUR own physical or technical weaknesses and working within them in order to perform at YOUR best level. If the second player reacts by trying too hard to do something he is not yet physically capable of it could result in injury or worst damaging their confidence.

Take inventory of YOUR strengths and play your game around these strengths for now as the other aspects of your mental, physical, and skills develop. Prove yourself right where you are as an athlete first and play to your strengths-now! If your mind is taken up with all that you are not you will be underperforming for your teammates, coaches, fans, and more importantly yourself. Simply, play to your strengths 100% – right where you are at this time.

Excuses

Another negative aspect of comparisons for parents can pop up when comparing the achievements of others to your athlete could make for excuses in the future. For example if an athlete thinks or hears a statement like ‘Timmy only won the team MVP award because he is the coach’s favourite’, it can give them a convenient reason for them to explain why they didn’t achieve what they thought they should have.

Such statements can become a crutch for your athlete, and is of no help to their progress. In this example, they will fail to critically assess their strengths and weaknesses and make the necessary steps to improve, simply attributing the lack of recognition they get to the fact that they are not as well liked, or well-connected or any other such reason.

“There may be people that have more talent than you, but there is no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do.”

Derek Jeter

Pro MLB Baseball player with 14x all-star appearances, 5x World Champions, 5x Gold-glove awards.

Good Comparisons

As mentioned earlier, there are some instances when using another player for comparative purposes can be good. For example, a youth athlete modelling their game on that of an established star is not a bad thing as it gives them a goal to strive towards. This is something that happens all the time- for example a high school basketball center watching tape of Shaq O’Neal to improve their post play or watching guards like Steph Curry’s ankle-breaking dribbling moves .

In the same way, if a professional athlete is used as an example for how to execute an action such as shooting form, etc. then this is a beneficial use of comparison in ways that should improve them, giving them a better idea of the technique needed for success. Just remember to be very patient as you are comparing to the best in the world.

It is much easier for comparisons to get construed in a negative and unhelpful way for the athlete so parents and players themselves must ensure that they are framing these in a way that supports progress and improvement.

Ask yourself this basic question to determine if your comparisons are good: Is my comparison to another player positive or negative?

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