A to Z of coaching: B – Beliefs

There’s a prevailing school of thought in the world that beliefs are a source of strength and comfort. “I have my beliefs!”, someone will declare with some defiance and assuredness.

That may work well for some but based on my professional experience, beliefs are more often the cause of underperformance, even leading to unnecessary suffering and stress.

Let’s explore why.

One of my favourite stories from the world of sports psychology is a suggestion that Jack Nicklaus once proffered that it was easier for him to win a major tournament than a regular tour event. On the surface, that makes no sense. The world’s top players assemble for the majors. You have to be the best golfer in the world that week.

Jack’s reasoning, though, was revealing. He had observed over the years that on regular tour events, a large number of players teed up believing they had a chance of winning. When it came to the majors though, only a fraction of that number had that belief. So from Jack’s perspective, he had less competition on the biggest stage.

Jack knew he could win. That was based on experience, and confidence built over a stellar career. And he had learned that the game wasn’t just about the technicalities of the swing, or the accuracy of the putts. The mental component was significant and his capability to master that was one of the reasons why no one has won more.

Ultimately, Jack’s story is about self-limiting beliefs. The players who arrived telling themselves stories that the majors are the ultimate test or that’s it going to take something unprecedented from them to compete, they are limiting their sense of possibility before a single ball is hit.

We have many beliefs about ourselves. Most of these are relevant to our professional performance. Some of these beliefs can be useful, or even helpful in a given moment. Others, though, are self-limiting.

It’s part of our job as a professional to know the difference.

There is a lot to be gained from interrogating our beliefs. We typically underestimate the impact of our beliefs on how we perform. By raising our awareness (much of our beliefs are usually below our level of conscious awareness), we can go deeper and ask some insight-generating questions: Is this belief evidence-based? How well does this belief serve me? From where did I pick up this belief?

Here are a couple of exercises that will help you make progress:

1. Monitor your shoulds

When we use the word ‘should’, we’re typically building upon an existing belief. The basic construct is, “I should do this because I believe something needs to be different”. So raising your awareness of the use of ‘should’ in thought or speech will help you gain visibility to your most active beliefs. Initially, just catch yourself using ‘should’. Develop the habit of noticing and over time, you’ll begin to spot trends and gain a deeper understanding of where the compulsion is coming from.

2. Make your beliefs visible

Capture as many beliefs as you can and make them visible. The simplest way to do this is to fill a page with beliefs, without filtering too much and then later transfer each belief to a sticky note. Examples might be, “I work best alone”, “I’m not good at sales”, “I don’t have the experience for that” etc. An exercise like this can be surprisingly emotional, so give yourself the space and time to do it properly.

Once you have plenty of sticky notes, you can then begin to sort them along specific spectra such as Useful <—> Not Useful or Evidence-based <—> Not evidence-based. The practice of doing this will help reveal a lot about the motivation behind much of your behaviour. It’s perfectly ok to crumple up a sticky note and throw it in the recycling bin if you’re ready to leave any belief behind. That choice is always there for us.

Working with your beliefs will inevitably improve your professional performance, unless of course you believe it won’t. 😀


This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.