I come across many strength enthusiasts who have contemplated taking their gym strength to the competition platform. Some of these individuals are extremely apprehensive. Understandably, it’s a big leap. It’s an even bigger leap for people who have never previously competed in sports. To do anything with no previous framework or understanding of the context is difficult to do. Humans like familiarity, routine, and an awareness of future expectations. When trying new things, like competing, people are faced with an unfamiliar context, a routine that is out of their ordinary endeavors, and a limited understanding of the expectations or results of their actions.
By the time you’re an adult there is general understanding of how the world works. You know that certain actions will likely result in equatable outcomes. In other words, you can anticipate based on prior knowledge that actions “A”, “B”, and “C”, will result in outcome “D”. Although you can’t predict the future, you can have a certain level of foresight in understanding the likeliness of something happening or the sureness of an outcome. There is another way to conceptualize this foresightedness. In the face of a familiar situation, you have the ability to elevate yourself from the context to understand who and what is and isn’t important, how meaning is created and awarded, how individual actions fit within a broader framework, how events are grounded in history, and how future outcomes are merely an extension of particular sequences. I like to call this a top-level understanding of events and outcomes. This top-level perspective is the difference between being in the trenches trying to make sense of things versus flying overhead.
Humans understand familiar contexts from a top-level because of the schema developed over time. A schema? You might ask. In psychology, a schema is described as a system of organizing thoughts or behavior. A schema is a mental structure built up from preconceived ideas of how the world works, which is based on past experiences, worldviews, cultural norms and expectations, and values. A schema is essentially the filter in which humans perceive the world, which ultimately influences how new information is processed. As a child, developing a schema is a continual process. Children constantly try and push the boundaries of their actions to understand what’s deemed appropriate and inappropriate. Through this navigation of actions, children create a framework for representing various aspects of life and understanding the world. As an adult, the schema has already been formed from childhood experiences and is somewhat unbreakable to change. In other words, schemas are resistant to information that is contradictory to one’s already established perspective.
For example, picture yourself living in Calgary and you decide to take a trip to Toronto. Clearly Toronto is different than Calgary, but you will land in Toronto, and continue to understand the world around you. You will meet new people and know exactly how to conduct yourself. You will shake other’s hands, smile and be friendly, and know what is considered an appropriate versus inappropriate dialogue. Now, picture yourself taking a trip to a foreign country. You find that people conduct themselves markedly different than back home. You try and shake other’s hands and they find it unsanitary. You try and look in their eyes and smile and they take it as an offensive sign. The rules of engagement are unknown. To understand these new experiences is difficult because the current situation is trying to be filtered through a barely-applicable schema. This is what’s referred to as “culture shock,” and as a result, you may feel a cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort one experiences when confronted with conflicting ideas, beliefs, or values, or otherwise a scenario that is unfamiliar. In the example above, when you don’t know how to process new events it causes disequilibrium resulting in a number of emotional reactions, including frustration, anger, embarrassment and anxiety. People have a motivational drive to reduce this dissonance. Therefore, there are two assumptions that can be broadly applied to human behavior in the context of trying new things. First, people will likely only try new things that already fit within their existing schema, and second, people will make efforts to avoid situations that give rise to feelings of uneasiness. This can be summed up by saying: people stick with what they know and stay within their comfort zone.
So, what does this have to do with competing for the first time? The answer is obvious. New athletes are trepid in their efforts to move from a recreational to competitive pursuit. This trepidation lies deep within the psyche. People experiencing activities for the first time don’t have a context to base their understanding, especially when these experiences exist far outside their frame of comfort. Thus, when people can’t anticipate or predict future outcomes they are more likely to avoid the situation through a series of rationalizing thoughts. For example, “the competition is too far away,” “I’m not strong enough to compete,” “I might hurt myself in the process,” “I’m not a competitive person by nature,” “there’s not enough time to train,” "I'm not ready," and so on and so forth. I like to call this ‘rationalizing thought syndrome,’ and I’ve seen it play out many times with very talented strength athletes who are deciding to compete for the first time.
So how is it that anyone ever tries something new? Well, a supportive network of friends and coaches definitely helps mitigate ‘rationalizing thought syndrome’. These key individuals can act as a pillar of strength and confidence in a territory that is, at first, unfamiliar. As well, it ought to be recognized that schemas can be broadened only by facing new experiences and challenging cognitive dissonance. If you continue to rely on what you know without pushing individual horizons, you will forever live with ignorance as the cornerstone of your existence. The result of taking steps into the unknown can be an edifying process. In fact, if you want to become a better version of yourself physically, emotionally, or intellectually, then becoming immersed in new contexts will re-construct your schematic filters and change the way you perceive the world.
For those individuals wanting to become better at their chosen strength sport, the only way to advance this progress is through competing. Once the initial fear of competing resides, and you get accustomed to the competitive context, the results will be unmatched by training alone. Through the act of competing, you gain new skills and knowledge that create opportunities for personal expression, achievement, competence, gratification, and future motivation. As well, moving from a recreation to competitive activity will produce athletic performances that weren’t thought possible, and will ultimately re-define your commitment to sport and physical activity in general.
Take home points:
-Humans perceive the world through mental categories called "schemas," which are based on our past experiences, worldviews, cultural expectations, and values.
-When humans confront new experiences that don't fit within their schema they experience a cognitive dissonance that gives rise to feelings of anxiety and frustration.
-Therefore, people stick with what they know and stay within their comfort zone.
-Challenging feelings of dissonance can be an enriching/enlightening process
-Deciding to compete in a competition is hard at first but the rewards are longlasting.
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