The Performance Trap

I have had a passion for athletics as long as I can remember.  I can’t recall a time in my childhood or youth that I didn’t have some kind of ball in my hands.  That passion for sports continued through youth athletics and high school football and baseball.  I loved being part of a team and the competitive environment.  I’ve always enjoyed the training and preparation as much as the games.  The one downside that I had to eventually deal with was what I refer to as the performance trap.  While I was a team player and a good teammate, team success wasn’t enough for me.  I had to play well in the process.  While we all want to perform well and play up to our ability, I had a real issue with personal performance at times.  My performance impacted my identity.  If I played well, I had confidence, engaged with others, and was a positive influence on everyone around me.  If I played poorly, I was more withdrawn, less engaging, and had a generally lower self-esteem in every aspect of my life.

I don’t think my story is unique.  There are a lot of people, both in their teens and adults, that are caught in this performance trap.  For me, it was athletics.  It could also be job performance and advancement in a career driving the performance trap.  It could be relationship success and popularity driving the performance trap.  With social media, it now may be how many “likes” we get on a posting that drives the performance trap.  Whatever that performance trap may be for you, it’s not healthy.  Performance should never drive our identity or self-worth.  

James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, makes the comment, “When you fall in love with the process not the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.  You can be satisfied anytime your system is running.”  While I loved the process of playing sports and the competitive environment, I was too focused on the product, my individual performance.  My rollercoaster ride of feeling great when I played well and moping around when I didn’t meet my standards was not a healthy view of my identity.  

It wasn’t until I met with coach Pat Patterson, the head baseball coach at La Tech when I was entering college, that I finally moved past the performance trap.  I asked coach Patterson for a chance to walk-on at Tech and play baseball.  He told me that I was welcome to attend the walk-on tryout but that I wouldn’t make it.  He was looking for a pitcher, and that wasn’t me.  I left that meeting disappointed, but on the ride back to Minden, I just decided to go play the rest of the summer season as hard as I could and enjoy every second of it.  The remainder of that season was outstanding.  No longer was I caught in the performance trap with a fear of failure looming over me.  I was now just enjoying the process that James Clear wrote about so many years later. 

If you find yourself caught in that performance trap, regardless of your stage in life, take a break and regroup.  You need to define your identity.  Don’t allow someone else or your performance define it.  Identity is more than what we accomplish.  Identity is who we become.  I define my identity in three ways:  a follower of Jesus, a servant leader, and an athlete.  Those three drive my actions, my focus, my conversations, and essentially every aspect of my life.  I love the process associated with each one of those.  While I want to experience success in each of those areas, the results don’t impact my identity nor my self-esteem, confidence, or my engagement with others.  I find peace and satisfaction in the process.  

Give it some thought.  Are you caught in the performance trap?  Let’s move past that trap and seek lasting satisfaction.  It may require some introspective work on your part, but it will be well worth it.