Ego vs Task – What makes a champion?

John Wooden, my favourite coach and perhaps the greatest of all time, said: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable”. Wooden said a lot of true and important things in a long life of service, but none I’d argue more important or true than this. While we must all define our own success, ultimately, as Wooden points out, if you exhaust your physical and mental capacity in the pursuit of excellence, the result can be nothing but peace of mind.

Having recently invested in my coaching development by expanding my knowledge of sports psychology, it became abundantly clear to me a few months ago why my playing career didn’t advance beyond state u19s and ‘A’ grade men’s cricket. It’s pretty simple… at some stage in my youth, I let my ego drive my development while I sat compliant in the passenger seat. I rarely had peace of mind. My hope is that in reading this reflection, young athletes will better understand the paralyzing effect ego can have on development, and why a task-mastery mindset is the solution for self-satisfaction.

Put simply, your mindset is a navigator, programming your journey through life and dictating decisions whenever a choice arises. The navigator comes in two models: An E model (ego), and a TM model (task-mastery). The company producing the E model is very proud of itself, and spends huge sums of money advertising how special it is compared to the other model. It has a sleeker external design than the TM model and the company has constructed a preset demo that is impressive to novice buyers, which they plug routinely. Both navigators are a similar price.

The company that manufactures the TM model doesn’t spend its time or money advertising. Rather, they have spent their money on ensuring that their navigator is backed up with a series of protections from attacks, malfunctions and viruses. Its maps are much more expansive, opening up many more routes to consumers. It also has up-to-date information on road-blocks, and offers efficient detours so that consumers can always find a way to get to their desired destination. The TM model offers a satisfaction guarantee.

Both models were released on the same date. The E model reveled in media attention and ignored the advice of tech experts to improve the electronics. They distracted consumers with their preset demo, used the media buzz to sell it and they took 95% of the market share. The advertising worked, people bought the E model in droves, and nobody paid much attention to the TM model.

However, after a short while, when the initial hype had worn off, the E model consumers filed similar complaints about their navigators. Some noted that although they could set a perfect desired destination, the navigator wouldn’t actually track progress. Others noted its propensity to overheat, to not function when it rained or around potential hazards. Many consumers didn’t trust the model, and complained of viruses and navigational malfunction that drove them right off the road and into danger. There were some cases of complete dysfunction, where the navigator simply wouldn’t turn on. By contrast, the consumers of the TM model noted sustained function, positive experiences, and had complete peace of mind.

Which model would you choose?

An ego mindset is one in which decisions/behaviours are determined largely by the anticipated response it will generate from others. This is precisely why it is so unhelpful. If your satisfaction is derived from the opinions of others, your peace of mind – your success – is dependent on factors beyond your control.

Beyond a lack of control over your success, ego diverts your attention from a fearless and consistent pursuit of excellence (mastery of task), and instead encourages you to focus on preserving your reputation or proving something to others. It is this attention deficit that meant I wasted a considerable amount of my cricket potential. By focusing on how special or talented I was (as if it matters – talent is a function of luck) I found temporary satisfaction in being better than other people. Because I focused on comparisons rather than development, I lost control over my goals. This meant my progress stagnated, and less talented players who worked consistently to improve yielded better results than what my talent could muster. Fast forward ten years, and do you think I still felt satisfied in my youth comparisons, when I was averaging 30 in club cricket and the guys I was once compared to were now succeeding in international cricket?

Comparisons as a means of motivation are easy, yet unsustainable and unworthy of long-term attention. Regardless of whether you are out to prove that you are just as good as the guy who got a hundred last week, or to show someone that you are better than that teammate who gets more attention – it is just a distraction from your actual purpose – to give your all to a cause and be satisfied at the end of it.

If you want to know if ego is getting in the way of your progress, consider these: Are you desperate to impress strangers who watch you in a net? Do you choose easy drills that don’t challenge you? Do you sometimes wish others won’t do well? Do you shy away from challenges that can make you look unskilled or lacking in ability? Are you scared to be wrong, or make a mistake? Do you sometimes refuse to try new things, for fear it will make you look stupid? If any of these apply to you, then I have good news! You have much more potential as a cricketer than you have shown until now! All you need to do is embrace a task-mastery mindset.

A task-mastery mindset is one in which your only competition is your past and present self. Without wasting energy trying to prove yourself or protecting others’ perceptions, those who choose the task-mastery navigation system focus their time and efforts on fulfilling their potential in any given capacity. With a mindset geared towards improvement, development is consistent, mistakes become stepping-stones to success, and adversity becomes an exciting challenge to learn from, rather than a roadblock for you to run from or blame for your ‘failure’.

“But coach, some of the best athletes of all time have huge egos – look at Michael Jordan!”

To the above question I say two things. First, their ego drives are matched by an equally powerful task-mastery mindset. You think MJ didn’t recognize that he needed to constantly evolve to be the best? He is renowned for being the hardest worker of his NBA generation! Second, understand that ego is an overwhelming force, and feeding it daily is dangerous. Because even if you reach the very top of your discipline, with an ego-dominant mindset your satisfaction and success relies constantly on the performances or opinions of others. My question is: Why would you let other people control your satisfaction and success?!

All I am saying is that whether we consciously recognize it or not, our rank on a runs leaderboard, or reputation among followers, is fleeting and is of no sustainable benefit to us. What is of benefit is peace of mind as a result of self-satisfaction. To this end, a task-mastery mindset is imperative. The ego will always be there, we can’t eliminate it entirely, nor do I advise trying to do so, but if we fearlessly pursue development and consistently welcome challenges, we will fulfil our potential. And that is success!

So as you delve into training, remember the words of Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon: “don’t let the pressure outweigh the pleasure”. Sustainable pleasure and satisfaction comes from being the best you can be, regardless of anyone else’s performance. So don’t sweat it, don’t get even, don’t prove people wrong… just rock up, challenge yourself daily, and look to improve each time you strap the pads on.

“You can be better than the rest, but you’re not a champion until you become the best you can be” – John Wooden.

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