Athletes, Ego, and the Post-Competition Blues

Sport Psych Webinar

Note: There is a very distinct difference between an athlete that may be feeling down and out after a victory, and an athlete that is suffering from clinical depression. It is imperative to emphasize that if you are coaching an athlete who you feel may be clinically depressed and/or is having suicidal ideations, these are symptoms that require intervention from a licensed clinical Psychologist. Mental Skills Training and effective coaching can go a long way to enhance mood and confidence, but do not hesitate to refer your athlete to mental health professionals if you see signs of a deeper pathology.

It is not unusual for athletes, particularly athletes in individual sports, to feel down or depressed during the post-competition period*.

When suffering a defeat this is understandable, but this also occurs in athletes who are victorious and meet or exceed their goals, especially as a general feeling of ‘what’s next?’ creeps in. The anticlimactic nature of winning, for some, can be a great source of anxiety and erode motivation, often leading to discontinuing sport or causing the athlete to delay further competition for extended periods time.

For many, this seems quite counter-intuitive. Why would one feel down or depressed after winning a race, setting a PR, or taking the overall at a Bodybuilding Show? Performance Psychology tells us that the answer to this paradox lies in the Goal Orientation of the athlete.

As many of you know, much of my Sport Psych approach concerns itself with Goal Orientations, specifically Ego vs. Task Orientation, which will be briefly discussed below.

The Ego Orientation

In an Ego Orientation, we find athletes primarily concerned with their abilities and performance in the context of their peers. Ego Oriented athletes value winning above all, and competition is used as a platform with which to showcase their superiority, as well as to gather data about their weaknesses when compared to other athletes in their class/event/age group. Ego Orientation can be an effective means of motivation, but it has drawbacks. For one, ego oriented athletes tend to lean heavily on performance or outcome goals (i.e. “Winning the Overall Bodybuilding title at Nationals”, or “Run the fastest American 5k time in 2017”). Performance and outcome goals have a very important role in the goal setting process, but they are also goals that offer the athlete very little control. What if an opponent has the race of their life? What about environmental conditions? Unexpected acute illness

In these cases, it is easy for an ego oriented athlete to overlook the progress they have made throughout their process of training and improvement and simply focus on a poor outcome that was not within their control. These athletes miss the forest despite the trees, and with no documentation of progress and no goals that actively stress process (form, technique, consistency), this leads to an overall lack of documented successes throughout the training cycle. Indeed, these athletes often only have the competition itself to use as a litmus test for success. To lose an event is to fail at the entire process. Worse yet, in an environment where only winning matters, ego oriented athletes run the risk of developing deleterious coping mechanisms in order to “save-face” in the event of loss, such as self-handicapping.

In the context of a post-competition slump, the Ego Oriented athlete has reached their long term goal and is stuck with the proposition of figuring out a direction to take. With these athletes, oftentimes their long-term vision is simply to narrow and adjustments are not made as milestones and short-term goals are surpassed. Essentially, their attention on the goal of the competition was so laser focused that they failed to understand that there is life beyond a win. Instead of thinking ahead, even momentarily, as they approached the competition, they stayed completely locked in.

Now, to label Ego Orientation “bad” is a short-sighted assessment. Particularly with regards to elite/professional athletes, it is all but impossible to find individuals in this population that do not have some sort of burning desire to defeat their opponents and be the best at their sport in an objective way. Tell an Olympic sprinter that they are too focused on winning a medal, and things won’t go so well for you as a coach. You could also try walking into the front office of an NFL team and letting them know that they need to de-emphasize winning. Please let me know if it works out.

The fact is, with most elite, professional, or simply just competitive athletes, you are not going to eradicate an ego orientation. In fact, some of the premier researchers in the field, advise to simply let it be and focus on bolstering a Task Orientation. In the end, the amount of time needed to rewire someone to forgo their ego orientation (which isn’t likely possible) isn’t worth it and time would be better spend placing the entire focus on developing a task oriented mindset.

The Task Orientation

The Task Oriented athlete is focused on the process. Competition is still important, but rather than using competition to compare themselves with other athletes, a task oriented athlete will compare current performances and outcomes with past performances and outcomes as a metric to assess their current training. As such, task oriented people set up and track numerous process goals as milestones toward their ultimate long-term goals.

Because of this, the locus of control is shifted externally, to the athlete. Focusing on tasks and creates an environment of success where small wins can stack up and snowball into increased self-efficacy and motivation. To this end, a bias toward tasks places the athlete in a mastery mindset: winning is nice, but the true goal is improvement and the ceaseless march toward mastery, while using previous performances. The endgame here is to be the best one can possibly be and put forth the greatest possible effort with every training session and competition, with attention placed on the ability of competitors being mere periphery.

As well, there are other advantages to this orientation. For example, Task Oriented athletes tend to cope better, display higher overall satisfaction with their sport

Practical Application for Post-Competition Blues

With a basic understanding of the above concepts, it is clear what is going on with a successful athlete that is feeling down after a successful competition, and one major component of this is their orientation.

As stated earlier, most high performing athletes are going to be Ego Oriented to a degree, so it is best to focus coaching efforts on making the overall climate more task oriented. The following tips can help in creating an environment that facilitates a task/mastery orientation. Remember, if you are working with accomplished athletes, removing ego orientation is going to be impractical, if not impossible:

1. Ensure your coaching is focused on the development and improvement of skills, rather than a win/loss record. Create an atmosphere that define success in terms of effort and progress.

Mastery trumps ego. As a coach, look to stress effort and improvement over the win loss record. As such, emphasis should be placed on the competitors that athletes are facing and their skills, but rather on your athlete’s progress and skillsets that are applicable to sport. Indeed, knowing one’s opponents is critical, but place that in the proper priority.

2. Teach athletes to embrace the process and track improvements.

Compliance can often be tricky when it comes to having athletes maintain a training log that tracks multiple variables. The key if to work with the athlete to develop a tracking tool that works with their lifestyle and contains the metrics that matter to them most, while simultaneously de-emphasizing the ego oriented metrics.

3. Assess and evaluate athletes based on development and progress, not wins or losses.

Wins and losses are often out of the control of the athlete, so focus on evaluating athletes objectively, using progress and skill development metrics as the standard. Athletes that played under legendary coach John Wooden have often remarked that he never really spoke about winning or losing, but rather focused on improvement in the fundamentals. Given his track record, it is a good idea to emulate him.

4. Provide objective feedback on athlete performance based on effort and status of skill development. Avoid unnecessary subjective feedback, both positive and negative.

Speaking of Coach Wooden: he was once observed by researchers who noted that 85% of the statements that came out of his mouth were instructive in nature. 85%! Nothing judgemental or subjective about their performance, but rather objective instructional feedback: “That was correct, do it the same next time” or “That pass was mistimed, note the position of the defender next time and adjust”. No unnecessary praise or criticism, just objective feedback as needs dictate.

4. Place heightened emphasis on process goals.

In most cases, athletes are already overemphasizing the competition and its outcome. Provide other reasons to justify dedication, hard work, and dedication. When you are working with your athletes in goal setting sessions, express the importance of process and progress goals, as well as the importance of having a grand vision that can stretch out for years down the road. Athletes should not be competing from event to event, but rather aiming for a long-term goal of sport mastery.

Conclusion

With the way most Western societies view competition, there will always be a bias toward ego orientation. As coaches, the onus is on us to ensure that we are creating environments that are facilitative to mastery and growth. By stressing effort and progress, and aligning goals to match a long-term vision, we can prevent athletes from feeling depressed and lost, both after defeats and victories. Remember, competition and outcome goals, while critical, do not provide athletes with enough control to ensure 100% success. Focus on mastery and the wins will follow.

 

* Although athletes in team sports are not immune to this, I speculate that the concept of relatedness (i.e. belonging to a team with a shared struggle) provides team athletes with insulation from this.