No matter what sport you play, there will always be general ideas about what a successful athlete looks like, how they act, and how they perform. For athletes, though, these generalizations can be problematic. The reality is that everyone’s different, and yet athletes often get discounted or discredited based on how they match up with these stereotypes. 

And worst of all, it can impact your performance and the way you feel in your daily life. 

In psychology, this is known as stereotype bias, and its effects have serious–yet often overlooked–implications in the world of high-level sports. You can learn to work through the stereotypes of how other people see you in your sport and how you choose to grow your own game. Feel free to break the mould. Every top athlete has something they do uniquely well, that doesn’t necessarily fit in with the image of a star player, leader, or champion. 

Tracing the Roots of Stereotype Issues in Sports

On a fundamental level, sports are rooted in hierarchy and structure. Sports are competitive by nature, that means people are watching to see how you fit in and scrutiny comes from every angle–especially as you transition into elite-level athletics.

This also means players are constantly receiving feedback about their performance and being relentlessly compared to one another. But the reality is that there are many ways to be successful as an athlete. And when you’re juggling feedback and expectations from coaches, parents, teammates, and scouts, it can hinder your ability to develop your own personal strengths. 

Playing and living to other people’s opinions has a ripple effect through not only the way you perform as an athlete but also the way that you feel as a person. 

Think of it this way: if you spent your whole life doing things because other people felt that it was right for you, you would only end up being what other people thought you could be. Now is a good time to practice being more than just the image most people have of success.

2 Ways Stereotype Bias Impacts Athletes

For athletes, the negative effects of stereotype bias can manifest themselves in two distinct ways.

Performance Impacts 

When you’re only focusing on playing how everyone else tells you to play, you’re potentially making a massive sacrifice: ignoring how you feel and neglecting your own strengths. 

Don’t waste talent. If you know there is something you are good at, use that ability. 

The most successful athletes are able to create their own identities based on their unique strengths. But if you’re not able to cut through the noise, you run the risk of missing this fundamental stage of your athletic development. 

You might find yourself playing in a way being asked to take on a role that doesn’t align with who you are as an athlete, and, as a byproduct, might always find yourself coming up short. 

In the long run, sacrificing your best assets can cause you to miss out on opportunities.

Team Culture Impacts

Whether it’s a spectator, a coach, a scout, a teammate, or a parent, everyone’s got their own image of what the ideal athlete looks like. And they won’t be shy about telling you if you don’t fit that mold. 

But the truth is that there’s no cookie-cutter formula for a great athlete. 

On the most successful teams, each player has their own role. And if everyone’s trying to play the same role, the team won’t be well-rounded enough to succeed.  

The best teams are made up of people with different personalities, skills, and strengths. And if you don’t feel like you fit into the team’s culture, it’s unlikely you’ll have the impact you want to have on its success. 

Emotional Impacts

If your idea of who you are as an athlete is based on trying to achieve some stereotype, you are not thinking about what matters to you. Role models are a good example. Every young player has players he admires. But at some point, you could be someone else’s role model.

Wouldn’t it be better to know you’ve carved out an identity as a player for yourself? The worst case scenario is that you go through life and only do things that help you become someone else’s idea of a success. Be honest, is that a risk for you? If you are not highly independent you might tend to think of yourself as growing towards some stereotyped version of success.

This can have devastating effects of your well-being. If you feel lost as an athlete, it might be because you are not playing your sport in a way that makes you happy.

Within the pressure to succeed, it’s easy to forget why you are doing what you’re doing. Don’t do it to become some person who you think of as successful. Do it to become someone you want to be because it’s a great life for you.

Stereotypes aren’t a good explanation of how to live live your life. They are oversimplified and tend to miss the point. And that’s why finding and playing to your own strengths is the key to being the best athlete you can be, no matter what someone else says it requires to be successful. 

7 Ways for Athletes to Overcome Stereotypes

Whether you’re currently feeling the effects of stereotype bias on your game or you want to proactively mitigate its impacts, there are seven things you can do to not only overcome it but make it work to your advantage. 

1. Revisit Your Performances

Whether it’s watching tape, keeping a game journal, or simply reflecting on games in retrospect, revisiting your performances is incredibly important to parse out all the things people say and what is really going to make a difference in your performance.. 

2. Evaluate Objectively

When you revisit your performances, be honest and objective with yourself in analyzing both the good and the bad. Take note of the things you did well and the times when you performed to a level that you were happy with. On the other hand, be honest with yourself about where you might’ve fallen short and analyze the factors that contributed to it. 

It’s important to remember that stereotypes can come from external sources, but they can also come from inside of yourself. Game after game, year after year, you learn about yourself–but only if you evaluate your own performances without bias. 

3. Take Stock of When You’re Playing at Your Best 

When you’re looking back at past games, take stock of when you were playing your best. Pay attention to what you do well, whether it fits within a stereotype or not. 

How were you feeling? What were you doing? What were the factors that enabled you to perform this way?

Throughout your athletic career, you’ll be asked to evaluate yourself, and you’ll need to be able to give a real answer rather than a recycled line–both for your own benefit as well as that of your coach and team. Real answers mean you understand your game better, which means you are less likely to be trying to fit some stereotype. 

4. Have a Growth Mindset

In order to improve, you need to adopt a growth mindset. As much as you have your strengths and you want to play to them, you also need to be willing to grow and learn new skills. Remember, stereotypes also come from within yourself. So, if you limit yourself based on your own stereotypes of your strengths and perceived weaknesses, you might miss out on opportunities to improve. 

Just because you play one way now doesn’t mean you have to play that way forever. If you’re aware of your own stereotypes, you can grow beyond any limiting beliefs. 

5. Have Clarifying Conversations

There’s a lot to be said for individuality in sports, but it’s also imperative that you’re aware of your game and your strengths, understand how others see them, and be able to see how it can all fit together within the structure and systems of your team. 

The best way to do this is to have clarifying conversations with your coaches, teammates, family, and friends. Engage in a dialogue about where you feel you excel and proactively seek ways in which it can complement what the team is trying to achieve. Let the people who are closest to you help you become the athlete you want to be. 

6. Address Issues Proactively 

If there’s one universal truth in life and in sports, it’s that complaining doesn’t get you anywhere. 

Letting yourself struggle or feel misaligned without taking steps to fix it will only serve to frustrate you. It’s tough to make meaningful changes if you haven’t figured out your own game. 

So, proactively understanding and addressing issues is the best way to reach your potential.

7. Understand Yourself and Personalize Your Game

For any high-performance athlete, taking the initiative to understand yourself is the key to defining your own game and finding where it fits within your team structure. This starts with using tools to understand your:

  • Personality 
  • Behaviors
  • Triggers
  • Reactions
  • Emotions
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Communication style

From there, it’s a matter of taking these insights and following an actionable plan to use them to your advantage.

That’s where AthleteDISC comes into play—an assessment that evaluates your behaviors as a means to understand how you can get the best results in your own way.

My Mental Game analyzes your AthleteDISC results and offers a debrief on the results that helps you define your own game, better understand and interact with your coaches and teammates, and cut through the noise of stereotype bias so you can become a more well-rounded athlete. 

How Overcoming Stereotype Bias Can Help You Improve Your Game

When you define your own game and understand the causes and effects of stereotype bias, you’ll be better equipped to take all of the feedback you receive and find ways of balancing it all so it works for both you and the team. 

This allows you to: 

  • Filter through all of the advice you receive and take what suits you best without following it all blindly
  • Stop comparing yourself to others (on your team and at higher levels of your sport) 
  • Build an identity and game that meets the demand of your sport 
  • Identify your strengths and build them into who you are
  • Hone in on where you are as well as where you can go
  • Get comfortable with the fact that your skills might take time to shine through when you move up into new levels of your sport

Overcoming stereotypes in sport will help you reach new heights in your athletic career and make meaningful impacts on the teams you play with. Don’t live and die by what other people think it. Don’t expect that you have to be just like the players you’ve seen before.