The Hidden Code for Improved Performance

Research helps identify the importance of belonging.

Posted Nov 03, 2019

When 22-year-old Egan Bernal, the youngest – and only South American – rider ever won the Tour de France, Colombians exploded with pride. The country laid out the red carpet as Bernal, “El berraco,” rode home with the coveted yellow jersey.

A country with a notorious past, filled with towering mountains, hills, and villages in the sky, Colombia seems like an unlikely breeding ground for elite athletes. Despite the country’s recent history, Colombians are an incredibly, happy, proud and high-performing population who rejoice in their music, celebrate their diversity, savor their coffee, and relish in their heritage.  

Kristen Bidwell, used with permission
The College of William & Mary, known as 'the Tribe' highlighting their unity, join together in a cheer before a competition.
Source: Kristen Bidwell, used with permission

How does an economically underdeveloped country, with its bespattered history, produce an elite athlete such as Egan Bernal?

Colombians identify with something known locally as “berraquera." "Berraco/a" means courageous, focused, tough, someone who is team oriented, smart, not afraid to take chances, and doesn't quit. Proud of their ability to overcome adversity, known for their work ethic, Colombians consider resilience as the cornerstone of their culture and it is what bonds them together. 

Each time Shakira sings, “Los Cafeteros” play, or a Colombian wins Olympic gold, the whole country delights together.  Every success is a David and Goliath story, a collective triumph over adversity, a reflection of the underlying unity that defines the Colombian people. The communal identity of “berraquera” may not only result in happiness but it may be the secret and bedrock to their sporting successes.   

If a unifying identity can produce better athletes, how does this power of collective group happiness translate to universities? The 2020 Princeton Review identifies Auburn, as the happiest student body in the NationMary Margaret Turton, described what makes the Auburn student body merrier than others sharing that students experience a “kind of happiness that results in people feeling at home, as if they belong to something bigger than themselves. What both Colombians and the Auburn student-body have in common is a sense of belonging. Colombians bond in their notion of “berraquera” and the Auburn Tigers come together with the Auburn Creed written by George Petrie in 1943.

What Auburn has accomplished is school pride that isn’t compromised by a commercialized sports agenda. It is not the success of Auburn’s sports teams that results in “school spirit” – it is much deeper than that. It is the fact that all students (athletes and non-athletes) are held to a higher standard, a higher belief: to uphold the Auburn Creed. It is the acceptance of the tenants of the Creed that bond, begetting the power of oneness and creating a sense of belonging for the students of Auburn. You can have it all, brains, drive, work ethic, and even natural ability – but without a sense of belonging, these talents can become meaningless. Studies demonstrate that a sense of belonging, reduces the sense of isolation, encourages feelings of value and respect, and improves intrinsic motivation. In other words, group cohesion and group identification are like a health insurance plan for improved performance.

Understanding the impact school and team culture can have on the mental health and performance of an individual, here are three things to keep in mind when contemplating the ideal program for your teen.

1.     Trust.

Athletes must have faith in the coaching staff, and this trust needs to be reciprocated. Trust, forged by coaches, is the underpinning of a healthy and high-performing team. Teams that are supportive, do not have cliques, work well together, trust in their training, and perform better. Coaches that work on building strong relationships with their athletes have an even greater impact on the field, in the pool, or at the gym. This strong bond is not only important for the individual athlete’s growth, but also for the development of the team and their overall performance. Good coaching promotes work ethic, improves technique, enhances endurance and increases team unity. A coach who understands that embracing an overarching belief can ensure the feelings of “oneness” persist. This sense of belonging serves as the secret sauce that optimizes and fuels both team and individual happiness and better athletic performance. 

2.     Focus on the process.

Visible behavior is powerful in communicating a coach’s values and beliefs. Watch how a coach reacts emotionally throughout a competition. Is a coach obsessed with outcomes or do they berate players for mistakes?  A focus on outcome does not build trust, community, or respect. Winning alone does not inspire people. What does inspire, is witnessing the pure joy of competition. Consider the 1958 Brazilian soccer team, which included 17- year-old Pelé. This team, playing with their unorthodox techniques, captured the attention and adoration of a worldwide audience. Pelé inspired others with his love for “o jogo bonito” (“the beautiful game”) and reflected on the importance of joy suggesting that though hard work, and talent were essential, “…Enthusiasm is everything... Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do…

3.     Support and advocacy.

Coaching and attention to mental health is imperative. A supportive coach pays close attention to the mental health of their athletes. When anxiety or depression interfere with an athlete’s ability to function it is a mental health issue that requires help, not rejection. Nick Saban, a well-respected coach from Alabama’s Crimson Tide, recently demonstrated a lack of understanding of how significantly mental health can impact the performance of a player. Instead of supporting a struggling player, he recently chastised the  defensive end who was a top athlete and recruit for his graduating year, saying that the player “basically quit.” What he did not share was that recently, the player experienced intense distress over his grandmother’s health decline, which compromised his ability to function on a daily basis, and thus disregarded a mental health crisis. It is during these difficult times when a coach can shine and bring a team together in solidarity and “oneness” by supporting a vulnerable member, regardless of the athlete’s prowess, rather than dismissing or minimizing his/her/their state of mind. The record holding coach for NCAA D1 Basketball Championship titles, Coach John Wooden summed it up best saying, “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” 

The process of choosing a team can be a difficult one. Similar to the Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat, in Harry Potter, it is not only the athlete choosing the team, but the ideals, values and mission, choosing the athlete. For Auburn students, finding their place within the Creed is essential because it is within those beliefs that the students experience a sense belonging. Institutions that do not imply emphatically what they stand for may sacrifice the uniting power and strength of “oneness.”

A narrow focus on winning does not lead to long-term success nor does it develop champions. Instead, it is the power of belonging to something greater than oneself that does. Choose wisely and make sure the team you choose falls in line with your own personal values and beliefs and always work towards leaving it better than you found it.