This week our discussion of stereotype threat got me thinking about how people judge themselves, what characteristics they assign themselves in their minds, and the schemas that people will assign to themselves that can result in holding back their performance. In my work as a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, one of the most difficult things to overcome is the statement, “I x, so I’m not good at Y.” People will take something they’ve read or heard, or something they’ve been told about themselves, and use it to make a judgement about their performance before attempting something.
The readiest example I can think of is my girlfriend. She’s an extremely competitive powerlifter, having set multiple records in multiple states. Powerlifting consists of three events: the squat, bench, and deadlift, each taken to a maximum attempt. Rachel excels at the bench press, and it seems like every day we’re in the gym together and she’s doing bench press she sets a new personal best. The squat has been more of a struggle. Early on in her lifting career, Rachel saw a youtube video that mentioned people whose legs are longer tend to struggle more with squats. Although this may be true, there are plenty of individuals with long legs who excel at squatting. I believe this video primed Rachel to worry more about her squat workouts, and not enjoy them as much or want to go as heavy. Contrast this to her bench press, where she excels despite having very long arms (which are also a mechanical disadvantage for lifters).
In my own life, I’ve struggled with making judgements about myself as well. When I was young my parents read to me a lot. My father worked as a writer, and my mom spoke multiple languages. Therefore I grew up talking a lot and reading a lot, and my parents always complimented me on my verbal skills when I was young. When I got to school, I would consistently get high grades in English and foreign language classes. I was calm going into tests in those subjects even though I rarely studied, and I found the assignments easy to finish quickly and do well.
Contrast this to my struggles in math. I don’t remember who said it to me first, but I remember being told when I was very young, “You’re a reading person, not a math person.” Math classes always made me extremely nervous, and the assignments were long and frustrating. My parents put me in a math tutoring program, and I remember sitting at the kitchen table crying because a packet with basic division took me over an hour.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized I didn’t have a particular skill set, and my apparent lack of skill in mathematics was more due to the attitude with which I approached the work than the difficulty of the work itself. I believe that I was primed to do poorly in math class, rather than destined to do poorly due to lack of skill. My happiest moment in college was earning an A in my Economics Statistics class, because at this moment I felt I was finally able to buck the idea that I was, “not a math person.”