Seeking Social Approval in Sports

Eli Straw
Seeking Social Approval in Sports

“I hope my teammates think that was a good play.”

“I wonder what my coaches think of my performance today?”

“What’s my mom going to think if I mess this up?”

Do any of these sound familiar to you? If you find yourself frequented by thoughts of what others are thinking about you and how they are viewing your performance, you’re not alone.

This form of thinking happens to many of us, myself included. The majority of my thoughts used to be centered around what others thought of me and my performance. Of course we should care about others, but these worries go beyond acceptable consideration.

Consumed with this form of thinking, we are described as seeking social approval. We desperately want others to view us favorably, because then, just maybe, we can see ourselves in a similar light.

But why do we adopt such thinking, especially if we understand how hurtful it is to our psyche and performance? There is one key reason we will discuss later. But first, let’s take a deeper look at what it means to seek social approval.

Social Approval Defined

When looking for a strong definition of social approval, there’s no better place to start than the American Psychological Association. The APA defines social approval as:

“Positive appraisal and acceptance of someone or something (a behavior, trait, attribute, or the like) by a social group. Its manifestations may include compliments, praise, statements of approbation, and so on.”

Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?

I can tell you, I would sure like to have compliments, praise, and statements of approbation thrown at me left and right. Who wouldn’t? Talk about a self-esteem booster.

Some examples of what social approval looks like in an athletic environment include:

  • Your coach praises you after a play.
  • Your parents tell you how proud they are of your performance.
  • Your teammates tell you how great of a player you are.
  • The newspaper or media highlight your accomplishments.

All of these are fantastic acknowledgements to receive as a player. I know that whenever I had a coach or teammate congratulate me or I found my name in the local paper, my self-confidence skyrocketed.

It’s hard not to think highly of yourself when others are approving of you. But, if social approval seems so nice, why is it then a deterrent to peak performance? Why does the desire for such approval have so many negative consequences?

It all lies in what happens a brief moment after the praise is gone. Once the initial high of receiving approval vanishes, what’s left is a desire for more. Especially if your whole sense of self is wrapped up in the achievements in your sport.

"It all lies in what happens a brief moment after the praise is gone. Once the initial high of receiving approval vanishes, what’s left is a desire for more. Especially if your whole sense of self is wrapped up in the achievements in your sport."

Social Approval’s Evil Twin

Self-worth is defined by the level of value and worth you place on yourself. It’s how favorably or unfavorably you see yourself. Everyone is seeking high self-worth, as we all desire to feel good about ourselves.

Sadly, many of us go about this the wrong way, especially in athletics.

As an athlete, it’s easy to tie your sense of self up in your performance. The value you place on yourself, how positively or negatively you see yourself, is dependent on your athletic success.

Your self-worth is based on your performance.

Now, why is this bad? From a psychological perspective, having your self-worth directly tied to your level of play leads to a desperate need for social approval.

Judging our own performances is difficult, especially when it carries so much weight, as it does when the whole view of ourselves is dependent on a successful game. For this reason, we look to others to either approve or disapprove of our performance.

Enter social approval’s evil twin, social disapproval. Social disapproval, defined by the APA is:

“Condemnation and rejection of someone or something (a behavior, trait, attribute, or the like) by a social group. Its manifestations may include insults, criticism, disparagement, shunning, and so on. Compare social approval.”

The need for social approval stems largely from the desire to avoid social disapproval more than you wanting to feel approval. While the positive feelings associated with receiving praise are good, the negative emotions generated by disapproval are immensely powerful.

It doesn’t even need to be witnessed directly, either. When your self-worth is tied to your performance, if you do not openly receive recognition and praise, your mind will twist the situation, perceiving silence as disapproval.

Now you are caught in an overthinking pattern, leading to scenarios and ideas being created in your mind. Even if the reality is people are impressed by the way you played, if they do not come out and say something, you will assume the worst.

In such an insecure state, your mind will be fixated on one thing, and one thing only: attaining social approval, over and over again. This will prove disastrous to your chances of attaining peak performance.

How Social Approval Damages Performance

Displaying a need for social approval lays heavily on the mind. This is not a positive attribute and leads to more negative consequences than the brief positive emotions triggered by social approval.

In fact, the funny part is, you will likely get more approval from others once you see the value in yourself first. However, at that point, their praise will no longer carry so much weight, since you have developed high self-worth.

I know that we all enjoy positive reinforcement, but the goal is to get yourself to a point where you can enjoy such praise, without needing the praise. As long as you need the approval to feel good about yourself, it will wreak havoc on your performances.

Displaying a desperate need for social approval leads to:

Fear of Failure

I always say failure is best viewed as a learning experience. In fact, there really should be no such reality as failure in the mind of an athlete. There should either be a success or a lesson.

As someone with the need for social approval, however, sadly this option does not exist.

The success or failure of a performance is the basis for how you view yourself, meaning it directly impacts your emotional state. Perform poorly, and the days following will be filled with depressive thinking.

At no point do you see an option to learn from your failures, because they are turned into monumental moments of negative emotions. Welcome fear of failure!

Naturally, you will begin to fear the situations that lead to the tanking of your self-worth. You begin to play scared, due to the fear of making a mistake. Messing up means failure, and failure results in social disapproval…at least in your mind.

"I always say failure is best viewed as a learning experience. In fact, there really should be no such reality as failure in the mind of an athlete. There should either be a success or a lesson."

Performance Anxiety

Fear of failure and performance anxiety make the perfect pair. They move together in perfect synchronicity within your mind. One resulting in the other, which plays into the prior, resulting in a cycle aimed at deterring you from performing your best.

When you are afraid to fail, where does your mind travel? It will venture into the future, pinpointing moments where failure is inevitable. What then begins to ensue is a desperate attempt to avoid that situation.

You know the event will be a hit to your self-worth, so your mind grows full of anxious thoughts. It’s a natural response, one in which you are seeking to protect yourself from the negative emotions that are ahead of you.

Anxiety lives in the future. The more you become fixated on what may happen, the stronger your anxiety grows.

An anxious athlete is one whose mind is full of future thoughts, worried about the outcome, taken completely out of the moment. Success happens in each little moment within a performance.

You need to be focused, giving all your attention to the task at hand in order to reach your potential. However, with performance anxiety, such focus is not possible, because that energy is being directed elsewhere.

Low Confidence

When you’re relying so heavily on the approval of others, your confidence takes a roller coaster ride. As you receive compliments and praise your self-confidence rises. Slowly inching your way up and up, you feel pretty good about yourself.

But all of a sudden, you reach the peak. This is the pinnacle of the ride where the roller coaster starts acting crazy, going up and down, winding left and right. At this point, your self-confidence is in for one wild ride.

The first sign of social disapproval and the descent begins. Your confidence becomes incredibly fragile and volatile. Someone may compliment you, and so you feel a bit more confident in your skills.

Once again, a perception of disapproval, and you’re right back where you started. Seeking the approval of others will never allow you to attain true self-confidence.

You will always be searching for lasting trust in yourself. Any bit of confidence you do feel will be short-lived, completely at the mercy of the opinions and judgments of those around you.

How To Avoid The Need For Social Approval

Seeking Social approval as an athlete is a one-way ticket to disaster. As we’ve discussed, this type of mindset leads to many mental game challenges, such as fear of failure, anxiety, and low confidence.

All playing into the lowering of your performance and a decrease in the enjoyment you feel playing. When you are so concerned about gaining recognition and praise from others, you do not allow yourself the opportunity to find joy in what you’re doing.

Every move you make is performed with the intent to impress. This may seem like a good way to perform your best, but it’s ultimately distracting you from the focus you need to pay to the process. An area that will truly allow you to fulfill your potential.

What can you do if, right now, social approval is feeding on your mind?

The answer lies in how we go about valuing ourselves and placing worth on our play. With social approval, this worth is derived from external sources. You feel good about yourself IF others show you praise and approve of your performance.

This is the area you need to change. You must take back the power and control over the worth placed on your life. In other words, you must begin to value yourself highly, in order to reduce the need for others to do so.

When you begin to determine your own self-worth, incredible freedom is felt. You no longer seek social approval, and you can turn your focus onto yourself.

Once again finding joy in what you do, which will consequently lead to higher levels of performance. Of course, this will result in more social approval (though you no longer care since you are providing the approval yourself).

Approving of Yourself: Determining Your Own Self-Worth

I understand the strange thoughts and feelings that accompany the term self-worth. It can seem selfish, egotistical, maybe even narcissistic to focus on how much you love and value yourself.

However, the truth is, you will never provide all you can to your team, those you care about, and society as a whole until you begin placing high worth on yourself.

Think of self-worth as armor. It protects your mind from outside influences, allowing you to be confident, strong, courageous, and focused, no matter what happens around you.

Self-worth is about who we are rather than what we do.

Our goal is to build high self-worth, which means that no matter what happens around us, good or bad, and no matter what others say, how we value and see ourselves does not change.

What an incredible trait for an athlete to develop! No matter what happens around you, if you build high self-worth, your view of yourself will not change. That is why self-worth is the best way to reduce the need for social approval.

Now, as with any characteristic or skill, self-worth needs to be trained. As odd as it sounds, you must begin training yourself to view yourself in a more positive and favorable light. Sadly, it’s not as easy as claiming you want to have high self-worth and tomorrow it will happen.

This takes work because you are rewiring the way your brain functions. Altering any way of thinking takes time, especially when it has to do with our own worth. That’s why daily exercises are vital to the development of high self-worth.

There are four steps you must follow in order to cultivate high self-worth:

"Think of self-worth as armor. It protects your mind from outside influences, allowing you to be confident, strong, courageous, and focused, no matter what happens around you."

Step 1: Identify Negative Beliefs

The first step we need to take when wanting to improve our self-worth is to understand why in the world we don’t think highly of ourselves right now!

For each of us, there are negative ideas and beliefs we hold which are contributing to the lack of value placed on ourselves. These negative beliefs fuel the need for social approval. So, they first must be identified.

Now, two great strategies to do so include mindfulness training and writing in a journal.

Both are powerful ways to gain insight into your mind, revealing the thought processes contributing to your low self-worth.

Step 2: Change Your Narrative

Once the negative beliefs have been identified, something has to change. You would be crazy to sit idle, knowing all the terrible ideas you hold about yourself. But how do we alter our self-perception, especially when it feels so ingrained in our minds?

There are two strategies for doing so, one involving changing the way you speak to yourself, and the other the way you see yourself.

Self-talk, or your internal dialogue, is the way you speak to yourself on a daily basis. This is the conversation that takes place in your head. We all have an internal dialogue, the question is, whether it’s positive or negative.

Having low self-worth and the need for social approval, it’s likely your self-talk is a main contributing factor. You want to implement a self-talk routine, made up of positive affirmation, aimed at altering the negative beliefs you identified in step one.

The second strategy is visualization, playing off the idea that we all contain a running image in our minds of who we are and how our lives should go. It’s impossible to outperform our self-image. The way you see yourself is the way you will be.

Take the negative beliefs from step one, and visualize yourself as the opposite. For example, if you have a poor body image, it would be beneficial to visualize yourself looking the way you would like.

Both of these exercises are meant to alter the narrative that goes on within your mind. Providing yourself with the positive reinforcement and vision that you are good enough and deserve the value you wish to place on yourself.

Step 3: Identify Your Strengths

We now want to get you to see even more good qualities you possess.

When we seek social approval, this comes from a misunderstanding within ourselves as to just how strong we actually are.

Maybe you are looking for approval from your coaches in terms of a skill within your sport, but the truth is, you are simply failing to see it as a strength for yourself.

To really grasp the strengths you currently have, it’s a good idea to make a list. Simply write down all the areas within your life and sport that you view as a strength. Try to take an outsider’s perspective, observing yourself as if you were someone else.

Every day, revisit the list, reminding yourself of all the strengths already attributed to you.

Step 4: Take on Small Challenges

If you repeatedly saw yourself set challenging goals and accomplish them, how much do you think your self-worth would grow? It would soar to immeasurable heights because you are witnessing yourself knockout challenges.

Well, good news, you don’t have to wait for such situations to present themselves to you, you have the power to create them.

A fantastic way to build self-worth is by seeing ourselves succeed. The beautiful part is the successes do not need to be large. Each one compounds on the other, and over time your sense of pride and belief in yourself will blossom.

That is where taking on small challenges comes into play. It’s easy to read the word “challenges” and get scared. You may think it sounds daunting, but I want you to realize that challenges do not have to be a huge feat.

Simply set a challenge for yourself to exercise for ten minutes tomorrow, or say “hello” to one stranger. These are small targets, building on one another, ultimately aimed at increasing your sense of self-worth.

"A fantastic way to build self-worth is by seeing ourselves succeed. The beautiful part is the successes do not need to be large. Each one compounds on the other, and over time your sense of pride and belief in yourself will blossom."

Final Thoughts

The need for social approval can be a devastating distraction to an athlete. Focusing on the praise of others opens you up to the fear of social disapproval.

When in such a mindset, fear of failure, performance anxiety, low self-confidence, and many other mental game challenges get in the way of you performing your best.

For this reason, it is vital that, as an athlete, you work to build high self-worth. The amount of value and worth you place on yourself is a key piece to mental toughness, and developing a mindset equipped to succeed.

Begin utilizing the four steps outlined, and your self-worth will be sure to grow, and you will experience a reduction in the need for social approval.

If you would like a more tailored approach, and additional support in working towards building self-worth, reducing the need for social approval, or overcoming any other mental game challenge, mental performance coaching may be right for you.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you did, please feel free to share it with your friends.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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