Do you know the best way to predict who’ll be an elite sportsperson from a group 5 year old kids? What do you think’s the most telling criteria: is it strength, cardio vascular fitness? Is it a measure of determination? Perhaps it’s tolerance to pain?
Well, the scientific research is in. The answer: The month they were born. Huh? Well, to be more specific, it’s to do with when a child is born during the year, compared to the cut off age for their chosen sport. So if every kid born in 2015 plays against each other in soccer, then the kids born in January and February are most likely to end up playing soccer professionally. If the cut off is mid-year (in Brisbane, kids go to school if they’re five by June 30), then those kids born in July and August are most likely to excel at sports in their year.
Have you worked out why this might be yet? From the above paragraph, it’s clear that kids who are the oldest in their sports are doing the best. And that makes sense too: physically compare a kid who's 5 years and 1 month to a child who’s nearly 6, and the odds suggest the 6 year old will come out ahead.
What I found fascinating was that parents, teachers and coaches forget to take this into account when they look at a child’s sporting ability. They just end up comparing them to other kids in their year .They select the best kids and ask them to train more, tell them they’re great and have natural talent, and generally just encourage them more than the other kids. Because it seems like they’re better. But often: they’re just older!
It doesn’t take much to magnify this effect. When you’re just starting out at something, if you find you have a natural talent for it and you enjoy it, you keep practising. The idea, and early experiences of being ‘good at it’, means that when the going gets tough, you don’t take it personally. You keep pushing through.
Compare this to trying something that you think you’ll like, but in which you have difficulties early on and which others tell you you’re not good at. You’ve got to have a lot more passion and drive to continue with this when it gets tough. After all, every time it’s challenging, it’s likely you’ll attribute the difficulty to your own lack of ability, rather than just the nature of the activity: after all, you’re not good at it right? No wonder it’s hard (rather than just hard right now).
You can multiply that effect by a factor of, oh I don’t know, a million or so, if you’re only 5 and your general experience of the world to date is that you listen to adults when they tell you stuff because they know the way the world is better than you do.
This happens to us as children in all sorts of areas: you might have really social siblings, so you’re labelled as ‘not a people person’ even though if we compared you to everyone in the world, you’re actually about average. Having talented neighbours, class mates and even parents whose personality characteristics are quite extreme can lead to unfair conclusions being drawn about you.
It’s not always a bad thing: if you’re one of those kids born early in the year who’s making a living from swimming now it’s been quite beneficial I’m sure! As with most things psychological, it all depends on the context as to whether or not something is helpful.
If you’re someone who’s always felt ‘bad’ at socialising though, and you’d like to be going to more parties or a better networker, this conditioning from childhood is holding you back now. Just because you grew up with hardly any friends doesn’t mean you won’t have many in the future. As long as you can recognise when you’re being influenced by the past when thinking about the present, you can stop it, change it, and make the future what you want it to be.
How to stop your past from wrecking your future
The technique is similar to one I wrote about in the post ‘The Christmas List That Beats Stress’. Basically, you’ve been trained to think about yourself in a particular way in the past, and to change your ideas about who you are (and from that, who you can become), you need to stop travelling down the same old automatic thinking routes and instead make a new choice as to how you’re going to think about yourself in the future.
Step One: Listen to what you now tell yourself about you
Sticking with the socialising example – when you go to a party now, and someone looks bored, do you think ‘I’m pretty entertaining. That person must be pretty weird not to see how funny that story was!’ or do you think ‘They think I’m boring. Just like everybody else always does. It’s no wonder I have no friends. My sister was right, I’m just a loner at heart.’ The way you think will depend on both your early experiences and what others told you about those experiences. Hmm, that’s pretty important - I think I’ll repeat it:
The way you think depends on both your early experiences, and what others told you about those early experiences.
Step 2: ‘Blame’ other people for bad experiences
If you want to be more outgoing at parties, it’s perfectly alright (in fact, pretty much mandatory) to start thinking that you are entertaining, and that people who don’t see that are the ones with the problem (not you) if you’re trying to change your concept of yourself to a social person.
Whether it’s true or not (whether or not you're boring, or they were in fact weird), blaming a bad experience on someone else will help you to stay relaxed, to stay positive and so to make a better impression on the next person. It doesn’t mean that everyone will like you, but it does mean that you’re your best self when you meet them (confident, relaxed, positive), which increases the chances they will like you.
It also means that any setbacks are seen as temporary, rather than proof that you’re not okay. This means you’re more likely to keep going when the going gets tough.
Step 3: Take full credit for good experiences
It might feel a little arrogant at first, but whenever things go well with another person, tell yourself that the fact it went well is due to you being a naturally social person, rather than it just being ‘lucky’ or ‘a rare good match for me’. Start taking credit! Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to say that stuff out loud. But I can guarantee you that anyone who thinks they are/is good at anything, attributes their successes to themselves, and sees failure as temporary (they either call them setbacks or learning opportunities). People who are bad at something, or even just think they are, see any success as just luck, and failures as being caused by them.
Where to from here?
This is one of those universal principles that you could apply to any area of your life where you don’t feel you’re much good. With lots of work, you can change your perception of yourself in any area you like. But applying it does take consistent practice. And time. So it’s best to focus on something that’s really holding you back. A part of you that you’d desperately like to change, an activity you’d like to pursue if only you were any good at it. You can do it. Your past does not have to define you.
Bonus fact: you don’t need to be perfect at this for it to ‘work’! We all receive mixed messages from the world and other people and ourselves – everyone treats us differently, and even the same person changes how they interact with us on a day-to-day basis (which has more to do with them than with you anyhow). As long as you remember to practise some of the time, you will start to change who you think you are. When you slip back into old patterns, that’s okay. Even just recognising you have done so after the event actually reduces the chances you’ll do it next time.
So what are you going to challenge? Which part of you do you want to take from drab to fab in 2016? Will you be kicking (literal) goals in soccer, or spreading your social butterfly wings? What do you wish you could do/be/change? You can have it – the magic wand is in your mind!
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.