How to Handle Being Caught in the Student-Athlete Comparison Trap

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You’re not tall enough to get on this ride.” It was a blow to my little boy’s dreams of finally being able to ride Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain. As he noticed all the other Big-Thunder-sized kids, the look on his 3-year-old face revealed his envy and disappointment at not being one of them. Of course, being told he did not measure up to that height restriction was a good thing for his safety. Looking back now, I’m thinking it was perhaps his first experience (but certainly not his last) with the comparison trap.

Thankfully, the attention span of a pre-schooler is short, and before long, we were off to Toontown (which had a way cooler roller coaster anyway)!

Just like the measuring line at the entrance to an amusement park ride, life hands us many measuring lines everywhere we go. The car we drive, the college we attend, even what club team our kids play for – the list of potential ways for keeping up with the Joneses can get pretty long. It’s easy to allow our worth to be measured by others if we allow it.

The Comparison Trap Conundrum

Comparing ourselves to others is human nature. This can definitely have its benefits as we strive to improve ourselves, but falling victim to the comparison trap can have negative effects, too.

The comparison trap is distracting. It can make you question yourself. It can alter your mindset.

It’s called a trap because once you’re in it, you feel stuck.

No matter if you see yourself as worse off than someone else, or better, when you start believing that your measuring stick is the other person, you’re getting caught in the comparison trap. Regardless of where you fall on that measuring stick, you’ll believe you’re never enough, because your worth depends on someone other than you. 

Over time, it causes you to slowly give away your confidence. And ever so slowly, it will take away your own ability to win.

The Comparison Trap and Your Student-Athlete

As our children go through their life experiences, the comparison trap lurks everywhere – from clothes and friends, to grades and social media, it’s a lot to handle. Add the pressures of being a student-athlete to it all, and it can become a daily deluge.

The next time you’re at a big tournament with your son or daughter, think of how many potential triggers for the comparison trap there are. Firstly, there are the rows and rows of courts with great players on all sides. Then there is the anticipation of getting seen by their favorite coach (or ANY coach). Add to that, the spectators, vocal parents, and the normal performance anxiety that is a reality of playing the sport in general, and you can see how easy it would be to lose focus and begin concentrating on the wrong things – potentially costing the team points, or even a match.outrigger boys volleyball team at tournament

Volleyball is too quick a sport to be able to play well without the utmost focus. The less focused a player is on their own game because of the comparison trap, the more his or her concentration begins to drift to their mistakes. They will quickly find themselves losing the mental game and playing tentatively.

How Can We Help?

Teaching your student-athlete to develop a pre-game routine can be very helpful, but as parents, we can do much to support our kids to grow and thrive, even in the midst of comparison. Helping them navigate through it with the following quick tips can help them in sports, and in life.

Comparison Trap Tip #1: Help them keep the -ER words in perspective

Our job as parents is NOT to tell our kids they are the best (oh, please don’t do this)!

Instead, we need to help them realize the truth – that there will always be someone who is tallER, can jump highER, get to the ball fastER, or hit hardER. That said, we should remind them to keep those -ER words in perspective while they continue to work toward their goals, yet still have fun playing the game they love.

If you feel like sometimes you can be THAT volleyball parent who conveys to your child – and everyone sitting near you – that they are God’s gift to volleyball, this is SO not helping them (but you already knew that, right?).

On the other hand, if you are one that harps on your kid’s every mistake, remember they probably have already put so much pressure on themselves that you really don’t need to do it. Making them feel like they can’t measure up to your added expectations generally does more harm than good anyway, and will most likely backfire on their game and your relationship.

Remind them that they should not let those -ER words define who they are as athletes, or as people. 

Comparison Trap Tip #2: Remind them it’s only a highlight reel

All it really takes is a two minute scroll through our Facebook or IG stories to see people with perfect lives eating their perfect meals, in their perfect houses with their perfect friends. For the high school student-athlete working hard to excel at their sport, have great friendships, do well in the classroom, AND land an offer to continue playing in college, comparing themselves to the “highlight reel” of their friends – or worse yet, people they don’t even know – can cause their self-doubt to swell.

On the court, the self-questioning inside their head can get pretty loud (and they may never reveal it to parents, coaches, or teammates):

  • Why can’t I jump as high as he does? I train just as hard.
  • Why am I still on the bench?  I give it my best in practice every day.
  • Why didn’t I get that award?  I have good grades, too!
  • Why didn’t I get to be captain? Don’t my teammates think I’m good enough?
  • Why are all the other setters getting offers already? What about me?

As the parent of a student-athlete, we can support our children by reminding them that they don’t know what sacrifices someone else has made to improve their vertical, what nutrition or sleep regimen some other player is using, or how long it has taken them to go from the bench to the starting line up. Instead of looking at the other person as a threat, or letting their success decrease our self-worth, help them use it as inspiration to do better.

Remind them that sometimes the highlight reel isn’t the full story, and to continue to work on being the best player they can be as they write their own story.

Comparison Trap Tip #3: Help them use comparison as fuel not fire

So is it bad to aspire to be the best we can be? Not at all.

There are many great things about comparison. Comparison can be productive, and competition is healthy (and FUN)!

Whether a budding young player or an elite athlete, there are well-documented benefits of watching (and playing with) athletes who are at a higher level. You can improve your technique by watching their technique. You can watch and learn from their work ethic. You can even emulate their off-the-court traits and behaviors that help make them such a good all around player.

This type of comparison is healthy. 

Encourage your student-athlete to let this kind of comparison fuel them forward, and give them something to strive for. As long as they are in a good head space, it won’t cause them to question their own confidence or their training. Instead, it will help them formulate a plan to improve themself and reach their own goals.

Remind them that unhealthy comparison leads to envy and perfectionism, while healthy comparison leads to helping fuel their goals.

Comparison Trap Tip #4: Guide them to focus on the process

So now that your student-athlete knows to keep the -ER words in perspective, filter through the highlight reel, and use the comparison of higher level players to fuel their goals, the next step in avoiding the comparison trap is to guide them to focus on the process.

Help them to ask themselves what they can do in the here and now – their next practice, their next serve receive, the next rally – to be better a better player.

Encourage them to do an honest assessment of how much attention they are paying to their own individual process-goals. Are they playing it safe, or do they maybe have more to give? This could be in terms of their:

  • weight room routine
  • nutrition
  • hours of sleep
  • specific volleyball skills
  • coachabilty
  • relationships with teammates
  • other goals along the way!

Focusing on specific process-goals like these can help propel your son or daughter toward their goals, and help them avoid feeling “less than” because they aren’t quite at the level of someone else (yet)!

Encourage a growth mindset, and let them progress at their own pace. That way they will still be moving forward, but comparison doesn’t start to skew their belief in their own ability to improve.

Comparison Trap Tip #5: Encourage them to make others better

The volleyball world is competitive. When you add navigating the recruiting journey to the mix, it’s easy to fall into the comparison trap, as players watch each other get “opportunities” that they might feel they aren’t getting.

As a volleyball mom (or dad!) we have the opportunity to help our kids recognize their own gifts, and even remind them how they are a positive gift to others.

After all, when you’re the libero, you never get to hit the ball, but your pass can definitely set up a great play. When you’re a setter, your job is to make your hitters look good, many times without any glory. Even the hitters depend on keeping the morale of their teammates up or they can’t do their job as well, either.

Each player adds value to the team in proportion to how they help the others succeed.

When another player seems to be getting more accolades, earning better press mentions, or lands a spot on the all-tournament team, encourage your student-athlete to be happy for them.

Being selfless and encouraging to others is perhaps the most mature form of avoiding the comparison trap that there is. It will not only help make your child a better teammate now, but a better friend, co-worker, and even a parent of their own student-athlete one day in the future, too!

The Bottom Line

Beating the comparison trap boils down to a few key things for our student-athletes, (and for us parents, too!):

  • It’s easy to allow our worth to be measured by others – but only if we allow it.
  • When we start believing our measuring stick is the other person, we’ll believe we’re not enough
  • Those -ER words are the reality, but we shouldn’t let them define us
  • Someone else’s highlight reel shouldn’t diminish our own accomplishments
  • When we ditch perfectionism, comparison can be our fuel (not fire)
  • Focusing on process-goals and going at our own pace helps us achieve more

Your student-athlete’s mission (should they choose to accept it) should be to become better tomorrow than they were yesterday. Shifting the focus from being on how good everyone else is, to the ways they can improve and grow in their own game helps them move from trying to be THE best, to doing THEIR best. Sure, they will make their mistakes along the way. But that’s they way they’ll stretch, learn, improve, and grow.

As parents, it’s our privilege to help them navigate the different measuring lines of life – volleyball being just one of them.

comparison trap of volleyball athletes


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laurie with daughter sydney after texas vb game
xx laurie sig

Website Designer, Teacher & Volleyball Mom

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