What Elephants Can Teach Us About Limiting Beliefs

Elephants are the strongest land animals in the world, with some possessing the strength to carry up to 9,000 KG, or 130 humans.

So, how does the circus hold them back with a single rope?

From the time they are babies, they are tied up to a rope from which they are unable to break free. They may try to resist and break free, but after a while, they realize it is futile and stop fighting. Over time, they are conditioned by the rope to believe that they will never break free, and so, they remain still as long as the rope is around their neck, whether it is attached to anything or not.  The belief that they are unable to break free from this rope limits them even as they mature.  Even as they grow into the world’s strongest animal, they are unable to break free from the belief that the rope is stronger than they are.

Like the elephant, we as coaches have many limiting beliefs, because we have been conditioned to believe certain things are not possible, or must be done a certain way.  People believe that the more experience we have, the better we must be at something, but research has proven that this is not the case in many professions, and coaching is no exception.

Why do we coach the way we do?

When I speak with fellow coaches, one of my favorite questions to ask is, “Why do you coach the way you do?”

Some typical answers are:

“It’s my personality… it’s who I am.”

“I care about my players and I want to push them.”

“It is the way I was coached.”

All of these are valid answers, and do contain some truth.

However, we so often fail to explore different ways of coaching, because we have been conditioned to believe this is the only way to do it.  We have been conditioned to believe good coaches act in a certain way. We have been conditioned to expect certain behaviors and responses from players and parents.  Because of this, our experience can fail us.

We may confuse tough love with a need to control others. We may confuse passion with an inability to control emotions. We may justify our behavior by comparing our behavior to other “great” coaches, or by winning games and the approval of fans. We may ignore criticism by surrounding ourselves with people that defend us from all criticism or doubt. And above all, we may believe that, because our coaching style is effective, it must also be beneficial for the people that we lead.

But this is not the case.

10 Limiting Beliefs

Below are 10 limiting beliefs I held as a coach at one point in my career:

  1. Leaders must always present a strong front if they want others to follow them.

  2. I am a “process coach”, because I work hard and focus on the little things every day.

  3. I value character, because I talk about it, I am strict, and I hold people accountable.

  4. Some people are born mentally tougher than others, and they will always be that way.

  5. Sports build character.

  6. The newest generation of athletes needs more accountability and discipline.

  7. I value hard work over talent.

  8. Rewarding winners and punishing losers will develop competitiveness.

  9. Great coaches give motivational speeches and have clever tricks to get more out of their player.

  10. My value and self-worth as a coach comes from my team’s performance and the results.

One of the workshops I put on for coaches and athletic departments goes into more detail about the research, experiences, and arguments for why these beliefs are limiting. But essentially, these beliefs kept me from achieving more, building many meaningful relationships, developing leaders, and training character.

Call to Action

“We learn our belief systems as very little children, and then we move through life creating experiences to match our beliefs. Look back in your own life and notice how often you have gone through the same experience.” – Louise L. Hay

First, acknowledge that your beliefs are beliefs, not necessarily truths! Consider alternatives to the “way you have always done it.” Leave no stone unturned in your search for what is right.

Next, act differently. Show your strength by displaying a willingness to change. You may be surprised how many people will be inspired by your growth.

And finally, remember that the right way is rarely simple, comfortable, or met without resistance. It may not be easy, but it will be transformational.

-J.P. Nerbun