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.
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