The World’s Ego Orientation Obsession and Tia Toomey

When the only measure of success is winning…

Considering I had mapped out my week to complete a few articles on Ego Orientation vs. Task Orientation, an article making the social media rounds was a fitting reminder of the way the world (at least, the Westernized world) views athletics. As someone who’s prime concern is fostering the motivation of the people around me, I’d be remiss in failing to acknowledge the forces that work against me.

Recently, the Australian outlet Canberra Times published a piece on Tia Toomey, an Aussie who placed second at the CrossFit Games and went on to compete in Weightlifting at the Olympic Games in Rio – and placed 14th overall. The article, entitled World CrossFit Games Runner-up Tia Toomey finds Rio 2016 a different Beast, written by Roy Masters, created a bit of an uproar on social media.

Look, I try to take most Olympic oped pieces with a grain of salt, as the journalists oftentimes are clueless about the sports, as Masters clearly is. Additionally, Masters also appears clueless about specificity, skill transfer, energy systems, and a whole rash of other stuff.

But this article isn’t about that.

This article is about a glaring issue in the Western world with regards to motivational climate. When the smoke cleared, Toomey, at only 23 years old, place 14th in the single biggest international competition in the world. Additionally, she finished second at the CrossFit games. From a perspective of Task (Mastery) Orientation, the amount of milestones she had to reach in order to attain this degree of proficiency in multiple athletic disciplines is staggering. This speaks volumes about her work ethic, tenacity, perseverance, and dedication.

Yet Masters dismissed all of this in the article. Bottom line: she was “only” 14th.

Masters does more harm with this thinking than he could possible imagine.

The seeds of Ego Orientation…

Whether or not we become Task Oriented or Ego Oriented is largely based on environmental and social factors. When we are children, we learn this from our family, teachers, and peers. When being better than others becomes more important than trying to be better than ourselves, the seeds of the Ego Orientation are planted.

In coaching, creating a motivational climate that focuses on mastery, as opposed to ego, is an important concern. This is especially true in youth coaching, where experiences that children have on the athletic field can have reverberations that echo for their entire lives and leak into other domains. This is why it’s ironic that most youth sport “coaches” are volunteers with no training. Granted, these are parents, and they mean well, but meaning well and doing well are two different things.

This brings to mind the work of Psychologists Ronald Smith and Frank Smoll. In 1979, Smith and Smoll observed the behaviors of Little League coaches and devised a program called Coach Effectiveness Training (CET). CET focused on training coaches how to interact with their athletes through self awareness, fostering skill improvement, eliminating a “winning is the only thing” attitude, and using extrinsic rewards properly. The result was that the children of CET trained coaches had less anxiety and aggression, and improved self-esteem and confidence. Teams with CET trained coaches also won more than non-CET trained teams (Smith & Smoll, 1979).

Oh, by the way, CET training sessions lasted a whopping 2 hours! Yes, that is not a typo. TWO HOURS!

And when the kids get home from the game…

As effective as CET is, that still doesn’t change the motivational climate at a child’s home. I can remember seeing my father after athletic events that he could not attend due to work obligations. His first question:

“Did you win?”

Problem: what is the overall climate like at home?

What good is CET and other types of training (for teachers, for example), if we are pounding our kids with the idea that winning and being number one

I’ll expound on this in future articles, but at best we are training kids to be completely non-functional when adversity strikes – and it will. At worst, we are creating a group of non-adaptive kids who use failure avoidance techniques and self-handicapping, or simply set easy goals in life so that they never “lose”. I know, because I was this kid.

This article brings up yet another problem:

What does one do when society, as a whole, only equates success with the person who finished #1?

If our teachers are versed in motivational methods, our coaches are trained via CET, and parents are setting the example with Task Oriented climates at home…

What about society as a whole?

What does it say about us when journalists shame an athlete for “only” being 14th best at weightlifting? (IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!) Where are our priorities when someone has a myriad of incredible athletic accomplishments, but the focus gets placed on her no being on a podium in Rio, or “only” being second at the CrossFit Games? Do we really care about good sportsmanship, positive attitudes, and level of effort when we dismiss anyone who isn’t awarded a gold medal? How did we get that Ego Orientation as a society?

It would be nice if I had peer-reviewed sources to give me an answer here. I don’t.

I wish I had a magic way of showing society that downplaying a person’s efforts and dedication to mastery, regardless of placing, is counterproductive and asinine. Or, perhaps, a way of explaining to everyone, simultaneously, that Ego Orientation isn’t necessarily a bad thing…in the presence of a strong Task/Mastery climate.

But I don’t.

Tia Toomey, you are amazing.


Smith, R. E., Smoll, F. L., & Curtis, B. (1979). Coach effectiveness training: A cognitive behavioral approach to enhancing relationship skills in youth sport coaches. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1, 59-75