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.

Motivational Climate: Weathering the Storm

I’ve spoken a lot about Ego vs. Task Orientations as they pertain to the individual, as well as society.

This is the way in which we approach things: we do it for our mastery of the task, we do it to compare ourselves to others…or some combination of the two. Motivational Climate is something a bit different. Rather than the way we approach something, it is the way in which our environment encourages us to approach something.

Important questions to ask ourselves:
  • How did I get my current orientation?
  • What sort of motivational climate did I grow up in?
  • What motivational climate am I in now, in terms of work, sport, and life?
Our experiences with out motivational climate can have serious consequences.

One interesting finding is that task orientation is positively associated with a belief that one may be able to improve their physical abilities with practice (Sarrazin, Biddle, Famose, Cury, Fox & Durand, 1996). Task oriented people tend to have more of a “growth” oriented mindset, as opposed to a “fixed” mindset – that is, they believe that they have control over their destiny, as opposed to being locked into whatever gifts they were born with.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck goes into detail about the importance of fostering growth mindsets as a way to bolster intrinsic motivation in sport, academics, and business (Check out her TED talk, it is quite illuminating). This makes perfect sense – with a fixed mindset, any “failure” or  mistake digs directly into a person’s self-worth. If one fails and believes that they are inherently unable to grow and improve, why would they bother continuing to exert themselves as a particular task?

The answer: They wouldn’t. They would have no real motivation to.

Looking at the process, on the other hand, sets people up to believe that they can continue to grow and achieve. This causes us to dream and choose goals of appropriate difficulty in order to challenge ourselves.

The Ego Climate does the opposite. It creates a fixed mindset within us that is detrimental to motivation. By constantly obsessing about being the best, and comparing ourselves to others, we have a tendency to fixate on the next test/contest/performance review. Worse yet, as Dweck points out, people with a fix mindset will often avoid challenges, cheat, or look for competition that is far below their skillset – all as a means to not look incompetent.

Practical Application: Creating a Task Oriented Climate (or: How to know if you are currently in one)

Duda and Treasure (2014), offer the following strategies. NOTE: this list is far from all inclusive:

  • Assist athletes in goal setting. That is, do not do it for them.
  • Give the athlete a role in decision-making.
  • Encourage self-evaluation
  • Get athletes to take responsibility for their development
  • Spend equal time with all athletes
  • Be consistent, especially with evaluations
  • Emphasize improvement, effort, and persistence toward goals.

One key theme: Task/Mastery Climate is best maintained when athletes are given ample autonomy and introspection. When we couple this with a strong emphasis on effort and mastery, vice only winning, we set the stage for consistent growth, motivation, and improvement.

References:

Duda, J. L., & Treasure, D. C. (2014). The motivational climate, athlete motivation, and implications for the quality of sport engagement. In J. M. Williams & V. Krane (Eds.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (pp. 57-77). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Sarrazin, P., Biddle, S. J. H., Famose J. P., Cury, F., Fox, K. R., & Durand, M.  (1996). Goal orientations and conceptions of sport ability: A social cognitive approach. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 399-414.

 

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.

Reference:

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