Some time ago, I had the opportunity to speak with two athletes at a tournament. Their comments struck me. One competitor played at an elite-level and could certainly compete with some of the best in the country. We’ll call her Sally. The other was a lower-level player who was still quite new to the sport and competition. It was her first major tournament. Let’s call her Heather.
Sally entered a very competitive division in which she was comfortably the number one seed. But she didn’t enter the most difficult division available even though she would have been somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of seeding. I asked her why she didn’t enter the higher division. “I only play in divisions I can win,” she responded.
Meanwhile Heather was in the same tournament but playing in a division that placed her near the very bottom of the seeds. There were lower skill divisions that she would have been more likely to win, so I asked her why she had entered a higher division. “A gold medal is not the primary reason that I’m here,” she responded. “I’m here to learn and improve.”
If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll have read my article on ego orientation I wrote a few weeks ago. These two examples clearly highlight the differences between ego orientation (Sally) and task orientation (Heather).
Task oriented athletes are almost the complete opposite of ego oriented athletes. They can be identified by:
The Moderating Continuum
It’s important to recognize that rarely are athletes all ego or all task. Instead, think of the analogy of a ruler. On one side is ego and on the other side is task. We all fall somewhere on that ruler, but most of us fit somewhere around the middle.
The two examples I presented suggest that Sally is very ego oriented and Heather is very task oriented. However, I would guess that Sally has to be a little task orientated in order to become as good as she is. Heather probably has to be somewhat ego orientated or she may not compete at all. We all typically have both, but more often than not, we tend to have more of one than the other.
Where Does Ego and Task Orientation Come From?
The Goal Orientation (i.e., task or ego) of Sally and Heather stems from a variety of experiences combined with their core personality traits. However, much of this orientation will be developed through childhood and influenced by significant people in their lives (e.g., parents, coaches, and friends) but also by the sporting situations they are exposed to.
Even small comments from significant people in our lives can teach ego or orientation. “You have a higher ranking and shouldn’t have any problems beating him” focuses on comparisons between the two athletes and fosters ego orientation. Compare that to “Remember to control what you can control and keep working hard for each point.” The focus has switched to task orientation, which is much more controllable.
Parents are often at fault for reinforcing ego orientation in their athletes. “Did you win?” is the first question often asked. What if the athlete had performed to the best of their ability but lost to a superior player or team? Shouldn’t that be praised? Instead, in an ego oriented climate that doesn’t matter. Success is only determined by winning.
“How did you play?” is a much more effective question at reinforcing task orientation. The focus then becomes on controllable skills and behaviors. Effort, technique, and progress become the focal points. Winning? That’s great but personal improvement is the overall goal. Winning is a natural byproduct of continued personal improvement. All of legendary coach John Wooden’s books back me up on this one.
Which Athlete Do I Want To Coach?
Most of you will suggest that I want to coach the task oriented Heather in my original scenario. And you’d be right. But I’d also want to coach Sally, because they’re both capable of improvement, which is what I’m all about. Without any intervention, which one is most likely to become their GOAT and achieve their true potential? My money would be on Heather, and although Heather probably didn't get a gold medal at this tournament, but I suspect it won't be long before she's be taking home silverware, and probably for a long time to come.
Contact me to learn more about how task orientation can be reinforced in athletes (of any age and skill level!) and what steps sports organizations can take to foster task orientation in their staff and players.
There are few things more frustrating for coaches and fans than watching a player seemingly give up during a performance. Literally, even sometimes when the result is still within their grasp, it looks like they just quit trying. Alternatively, what about the athlete that doesn’t perceive the opposition to be too difficult so they don’t try too hard and play lazy? Frustrating right? Well, there’s a reason why this happens and it’s based on the goal orientation of the athlete. Here’s a quick overview.
The excuses flow soon after a loss for the ego-oriented athlete. An ego-oriented athlete is someone who evaluates their performances against others. They have this little niggling toe injury, the official missed calls, they’re mentally tired, they don’t compete well early in the morning, or they just didn’t feel it that day. Therefore, if they believe that failure or losing is possible, they tend to withdraw or reduce their effort in order to protect their egos.
In other words, when they lose they have what they consider to be a “valid” excuse. It provides a logical reason to explain why they did not win. It was not because they were not good enough, but because of some other reason. This saves their ego because it wouldn’t be fair to make comparisons to other competitors when a “legitimate” reason exists to explain the loss. Their ego is saved!
If losing is likely, expect the athlete to tank (i.e., reduce effort, fail, or quit). One or all of three things will become evident.
Now, let’s flip that situation and place the ego-oriented person in a winning position. What will they do in order to maximize their ego? They’ll reduce effort in order to demonstrate how little work they have to do in order to win. They’ll get lazy and careless, and if they win, it demonstrates not only that they’re better, but how much better they are. They weren’t even trying right? Sometimes this attitude can be dangerous, as the opponent gets back into the match and gains some confidence in the process. Sometimes the arrogance leads to tanking!
Can Ego-Oriented Athletes be Successful?
Yes, they can! Ego-oriented athletes may lack the work ethic of others, or may not win the tight matches, or fight to the very end even when defeat is imminent. But recognize that physical talent is not determined by psychology. An ego-oriented athlete may still have amazing physical skills and abilities that take them very far!
However, more often than not, the ego-oriented athlete is less successful than others, and the ego-oriented athlete will never achieve their true potential. They’ll never achieve their GOAT!
Here’s a little test to determine whether your athlete tends to be ego-oriented. Ask them when they feel successful in sports. If you hear any of the following, it’s a sign they’re likely ego-oriented or thinking that way:
So how do you change an athlete’s thinking? How can you turn them away from the focus on others to improving their own skills and abilities? Well, that’s why you need GOAT Sports Performance to help!
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