Tall Poppy Syndrome and Athletes

07 Nov Tall Poppy Syndrome and Athletes

Why is it that Australian athletes are often their own worst enemy when it comes to sponsorship?


It’s that well-worn Australian tradition that we’re all guilty of perpetuating, either by being self-deprecatingly humble (you know, the one where if you’re really good you have to be all bashful and quiet about it, and when someone else mentions that you’re really good you say ‘Oh, stop it, I’m not that good’ or hurriedly try to change the topic) or by subtly slandering someone who has the guts to say something really positive about themselves. We sometimes do it without even realising it!


It’s funny how many times I’ve heard Australians say that some European cultures are typically ‘Up themselves” (arrogant, for those who aren’t privy to Aussie slang). We perceive these self-assured, confident and straight-talking people in a negative way, and rather than taking them on face value, we try to read into what we perceive to be underlying self-grandiosity. We feel that if they are so confident about themselves and what they are saying that they must be looking down on us!


Isn’t winning what sport is all about? Sport is a way of vetting one persons skills, speed stamina, braun or a combination of those, against other humans in a quest for the furthest, fastest, highest or other ultimate goals. So why in Australia, once you’ve achieved that, is it expected that you get all sheepish about your achievements or risk being shot down in barrage negativity.


We see athletes from other countries throwing their hands in a big victory sign or running around with their shirt over their head, arms out like an aeroplane, basking in the glory of their victory, the reward of all their hard work and sacrifices. Yet our hero’s are expected to display disproportionate humility and talk about how great everyone they were racing against was…. poor little Aussie battlers….better put ourselves down before anyone else can!


Was Muhamed Ali really the greatest? By saying it, some would say that he created a belief in his opponents that indeed he was the greatest and the psychology behind that says that in their minds he had already beaten them. How powerful our minds are. Equally, our words are powerful, and as an athlete who knows the benefits that sponsorship would offer you, it’s your responsibility to shake off these fears that people will think you’re bragging or you’re a show off, and realise that if you don’t tell companies just how valuable are to them the sad truth is, no one else will do it for you.


If you want to get into the psychology of the tall poppy syndrome it’s all about other peoples insecurities. They perceive that their own self worth is somehow lessened by another’s achievements, and unable to genuinely feel happy for them, they take it as a personal affront and seek to shoot them down. It’s a bit sad really isn’t it. Think about how you’ve seen it play out around you in life, not just in sport. The gorgeous model-type girl that walks into the bar who gets glares from other girls, who then whisper to anyone that will listen about how ‘she’s probably got fake boobs’ or how tacky is her dress, when in fact they would kill to look like that. I’m guilty of doing that in the past and I can tell you, it was nothing about ‘that girl’ and all about me and my own insecurities.

So why is it important, as an athlete who wants to engage sponsorship, to be able to stand up proud and confidently state your achievements, strengths and qualities?


Are you that person, who, after achieving a personal goal or winning an event you’ve worked really hard for, goes to a social gathering with no intention of telling anyone just how incredible you are feeling…….who has that voice in your head that just wants to tell the world, but that other voice that stops you saying a thing? Do you hope that maybe one of your friends will mention something, so you don’t look like you’re an ‘attention seeker’? Can you even consider for one moment, that perhaps by you sharing with someone what you’ve just achieved that it may have a positive impact on them? But more than that, what is wrong with telling people about your accomplishments? Really? What is wrong with it?


When it comes to sponsorship, you need to be a detective, a business development manager, a strategist, an analyst, a sales person, a writer, a public relations manager, an ambassador…..and the list goes on……but of all those roles, it’s the ability to SELL that will really get your sponsorship goals off the paper and into your life. Your ability to pitch your proposals to companies in a professional, clear and compelling way are exactly what a sales person would do to win business. I’m not suggesting you don a shiny suit and slicked back hair, but you need to SELL the story of just how awesome it will be for your sponsors to get on board, and be clear and upfront about what benefits you can offer them!

It’s not bragging, it’s not being arrogant, you’re simply stating facts, about your sporting achievements, your life achievements, your goals and the benefits on offer to any company smart enough to invest in you. You’re helping them say yes by giving them a full understanding of YOU.


One of the first things I do with my athletes is an exercise where they explore their values and beliefs, and what it is that really matters to them. Most of them want to have a positive impact on the world, through their sport, through charity, through community, and it’s at this juncture that so many of them have to take a big step and accept that if they aren’t able to share their own self-worth and abilities that not only will they hold themselves back from engaging valuable sponsorship, but it will hold them back from realising those dreams and ambitions of helping others


As much as sponsorship is about business relationships and strategy, there’s a fair bit of soul searching required if you really want to get into meaningful and lasting relationships with your sponsors…..most business’s develop their brand to tell the world what they are all about, but as a sponsored athlete (who is essentially operating like a business in that you are partnering with companies) you need to share your own ‘personal brand’ with the world and not be afraid to say this is me and this is what I am about.


All athletes have so much to offer. So let go of fear and of not saying it how it is, go and do some writing, some soul searching, and get a clear idea of who you are and that it’s ok to just tell the truth about you, your achievements and your goals for the future………no matter how big and crazy they may be (and I hope they are!)


We’re about to launch our 8 Weeks To Sponsorship Challenge where we will work with you to create your personal brand and sponsorship strategy and actually create your proposal: CLICK HERE to register your interest and we’ll send you an information pack!

Vickie Saunders

Vickie is the world's leading expert on commercial relationships for individuals, businesses and sports organisations.