Basic 6

Promote Positive Self Esteem

Help athletes to feel good about themselves, and develop a positive concept of who they are.

"If parents, teachers and coaches communicate approval, liking and respect, a child will develop a sense of self-acceptance and respect."

Nadim, a synchronized swimmer, has problems with her self-esteem. When she makes a mistake in a routine, she gets flustered and apologizes right away. When the coach asks her a question in front of the team, she speaks in a very quiet voice and avoids looking her coach in the eye.

Despite this low self-confidence, Nadim is quite popular with the other athletes, often making everyone laugh with a joke about her body or a story of something stupid she says she did at school. Her coach, initially impressed by Nadim’s hard work and dedication to perfecting her routines, has recently become concerned about her. He’s seen athletes like Nadim before and is worried that her low self-esteem and need-to-please attitude could be putting her at risk for disordered eating.

BodySense Connection: Self-Esteem & Body Image

"…Within each of us, there is a unique and valuable self- just waiting to be affirmed."
-Canadian Association for Advancement of Women and Sport

An athlete’s self-worth, or self-esteem, is an important factor in whether or not they will feel good about themself and their sport performance. Self-esteem can come from many areas in an athlete’s life, including family, peers, school, and sport.

Because self-esteem is the foundation of an athlete's well-being, an athlete with low self-esteem is at risk - for developing an anxiety disorder, depression, and even thoughts of suicide. An athlete with low self-esteem may also have a negative body image, placing them at risk for disordered eating.

"There are many who believe that humiliation and fear tactics are effective methods [for motivation]. However, I have never believed that you get much in the long term by stripping athletes of their dignity, which undermines their ability to feel good about themselves and to take the physical and emotional risks required to be successful."
-Dr. Caroline Silby, Sports Psychologist and author of Games Girls Play (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000)

While having a negative body image can be a cause of low self-esteem, an athlete may direct feelings of worthlessness, frustration and anxiety towards the body.

When an athlete says, "I hate my body", the athlete may really be saying "I feel worthless." Remember that fat is not a feeling. When an athlete says "I feel fat", they may really be trying to say, "I feel unhappy" or "I feel out of control."

When parents, coaches, and other adults let athletes know that they are valued, liked, and respected, they will develop a sense of self-acceptance and respect. But when important adults in athletes lives belittle, ignore feelings, or treat them as though they are not "good enough", the athlete may view themselves as unworthy and undeserving of real affection.

Adapted from information from the CAAWS brochures on "Self Esteem, Sport and Physical Activity" by Peggy Edwards, 1993.

What coaches and parents can do:

Encouragement from adults can be particularly empowering [for athletes]…A little inspiration may get her started on the path to trusting what she thinks and feels."
-Dr. Caroline Silby, Sports Psychologist and author of Games Girls Play (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000)

Accept and appreciate an athlete for who they are. Not everyone gets to stand on the podium, but every athlete has the ability to shine in their own way. See the light in each of your athletes and work to make it brighter.

Praise an athlete for who they are and encourage them to explore interests and activities outside of the sport that make them feel good about themselves.

Help each athlete feel good about natural body size, shape and weight. Teach athletes about natural body size and encourage measuring themselves- and others- by the quality of the person inside.

Develop a "Language of Self". Help an athlete collect words and attributes that describe personal qualities. Write these attributes on a poster, or mirror, or sticky notes on the wall of the athlete's room. Have the athlete read them every day. Compliment the athlete with new attribute words like "you are so creative".

Challenge your athletes- physically and mentally. Helping an athlete feel good about themself doesn't mean protecting them. Use your influence as an important adult in the athlete’s life to offer perspective, guidance and acceptance -in a way that affirms who they are as an individual- while the athlete works to overcome obstacles in the path.

Taking Action:

Use the "sandwich approach" for feedback: Point out something positive, discuss or ask about something that needs improvement, and then finish with positive encouragement.

Compliment the "who", not the "what". Compliment attitudes, actions and effort in athletes rather than appearance. Be specific! For instance, you might say: "you are really determined to get that move", or "your ability to concentrate is really helping you today". This is more helpful than a general comment like "you are doing a great job". Your compliments can add to an athlete's language of self (see above). Avoid body compliments altogether.

Find a way to single out your athletes in positive ways. Make birthdays a special occasion at your club and celebrate activities outside sport. Has someone done a great science experiment, gone on an interesting trip, or started to volunteer in the community? Start annual awards for an athlete who is "most improved", 'most supportive of teammates", or any other self-esteem boosting quality you’d like to encourage in your athletes.