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Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Why Triathletes (and all of us) Need Your Reflection at All?

By Ido Heller | Aug. 17, 2021, 2:55 p.m. (ET)

“It’s an honor and an extremely emotional win, but I also feel hungry [for gold]. Silver’s not good enough,” John Kusku, a USA goalball player, said after smashing Brazil over a 10-1 win in the semi-finals at RIO 2016 Paralympics Games. Despite winning second place to the Lithuanian team, Kusku and his colleagues were hoping to boost the popularity of goalball as a Paralympic sport. The game is composed of two teams of three players each. Its objective is to roll a 1.15-kilo ball, with bells inside, over the opponent’s goal line that is 12 feet away, the same size as a basketball court. It is specifically designed for the visually impaired. This article will present a summary of the Heinz Kohut Self Psychology Theory that compares the emotional challenge of a goalball athlete’s ability to self-regulate and to self-soothe in a difficult situation and a triathlete's potential to rely on others with their needs.

Kohut was primarily concerned with the development of psychopathology. His experiences made him realize that the root of almost all pathologies, particularly narcissistic disorder and depression, are the primary caregivers, usually the parents’ early and extensive emphatic failures to children. Empathy is not about getting along nicely with another person but to understand other people’s perspectives regarding a certain experience. One example is an eight-year-old swimmer, disappointed with the result of his recent competition, frustratedly enters the car. Instead of understanding his feelings, his parents responded, “There is no reason for you to be angry. We are healthy. We have food on our table. Other people even had real problems.” This scenario illustrates a normal empathetic failure in interacting with other people. The parents responded negatively to the child’s need for acceptance.

Kohut explains that mirror transference or mirroring is responding empathetically to one’s internal self-object needs, which has a great impact on a person. Since a person values emotional stability, this need should always be addressed, not only on children but on adults as well. If a child’s concerns and emotions were rejected by the significant people, he may feel ashamed of how he felt and may stop sharing his feelings with other people. When the child reaches adolescence, a stage when a peer’s influence on self-object is most crucial, he may become externally needy and anxious about how others think of him so he pretends to be somebody else. Moreover, he would develop low self-esteem and would be extremely sensitive to failures, especially in front of other people. For instance, a five-year-old child who rides a bike for the first time would seek his parent’s verbal and non-verbal (a smile) assurance that he is doing it right. He will probably have struggles in learning how to ride, but the empathy that he gained will help him cope with frustration (small or non-traumatic failures) and will eventually stop looking for reassurance when his ability is confirmed. If the child received proper verbal (“it looks you’re upset/disappointed/angry, I understand. How can I help?”) and non-verbal (relaxing face) mirroring on his failures, he will challenge any negative thoughts by replacing them with the encouragement he received from a significant person, such as his parents.

Indeed, information gathering is dependent on the ability to make adjustments to the environment. The lack of awareness of the "outside world" can affect a child with visual impairment in enjoying positive non-verbal mirroring transference in the environment. The impairment challenges him to be motivated, to succeed, to enjoy this success, and not to assume negative thoughts about his failure, without immediate non-verbal mirroring.

Even adults are seeking for acceptance and social reassurance, which reflects the concept of mirroring. A common example is an adult who frequently checks himself in the mirror while at a gym. He does this to find reassurance from an external object of his surface value. Another example is a triathletes’ attempt to check his coach’s verbal and nonverbal expression when performing a new drill during a club training. Similar habits are practiced by players who perform a three-point-shoot when they shift their eyes toward their coach after making a shot or a miss. Another example is amateur athletes who post their sports achievements on social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, to seek approval from their followers.

In comparison, a goalball player will not be able to see the crowd or his colleagues’ expression whenever he tries to stop a ball targeted at him which travels for 30 miles. His colleagues are also unaware of his performance. While triathletes are motivated whenever the audience smiles at them or when the crowd cheers on their achievement, an athlete with visual impairment is more emotionally self-reliant by learning to inspire himself alone.

To fulfill the athletes’ self-object needs and to increase their emotional stability, coaches need to identify situations that exhibit their lack of confidence and to provide satisfactory mirroring. They can do this by (a) planning drills that will be challenging for those who experience optimal (tiny) frustrations, (b) encouraging them to share both negative and positive feelings, (c) accepting these feelings by saying encouraging words such as “I understand you,” or “Thanks for sharing”, and (d) providing them with effective positive feedback.

It is encouraged that readers should reflect if they are in the habit of seeking approval from others. Learning to solely enjoy one’s success without recognizing other people’s confirmation is important to avoid falling into one’s self-object needs. So, the next time you do something well either in sports (e.g. losing 5 lbs, breaking your old 5k run or 51.5 tri record) or in other domains, refrain from telling anyone or at least hold it for twenty-four hours. Instead, meditate and ask yourself, “Why do I want to share this success with others?”

It is commonly observed that athletes with high self-esteem brought about by success would fall in despair at the first sign of difficulty. If they would continuously search for reassurance and happiness from other people, they are likely to fear their reaction to their failure. It is synonymous with the story of Snow White where the evil queen bases her self-worth on whatever the mirror would reflect her to be.

Ido Heller

Ido Heller is a school psychologist in Haifa (Israel), sports psychology consultant of Israel beach volleyball and goalball (Paralympics) national teams and USA Triathlon Level II Long Course Certified Coach.