Besides being a mental skills coach, I’m a volleyball dad. My kid is in college out of state, so she Facetimes from the bus or locker room to debrief her games. I want to talk about how many kills she got, a great dig she made, or some other achievement-oriented thing that happened. I can’t wait until the next day when her stats are online so I can see how well she did. I know better, but it’s hard to resist. It’s my ego! Clearly, I’m the best dad in the world if my kid did well, right? As good as it feels to revel in her successes—achievement and successful outcomes aren’t what’s important. It also isn’t what got her there. Consistent effort in the right direction is.
First, a Note on Ego
People misunderstand the idea of ego as someone arrogantly puffing up and strutting around. In psychology terms, the ego is synonymous with one’s identity, or their sense of self. Life experience builds one’s beliefs about who they are. We perceive this collection of beliefs as “me.” Someone puffing up is a defense mechanism their ego uses to defend their beliefs about who they are. Even when the beliefs are negative and misguided, the ego fights to confirm them.
The ego says,
"I am what I have,"
'I am what I do and achieve," and
"I am what others think of me."
For a developing athlete, the messages received from influential people contribute to the building of their sense of self. Excessive focus on and praise and successful outcomes creates a sense of personal value in achievement. The ego says. “I am doing well. That makes me valuable.” Conversely, it develops an aversion to anything that might challenge one’s standing.
It’s the ego that gets offended, that rages against perceived wrongdoing, and it’s the thing that leads someone to puff up and strut around.
Ego-involvement is the tendency to evaluate personal performance by comparing to external things like peer performance, high expectations, and winning. Anything less than an A-game performance equals unworthy. The ego doubles down on self-preservation using defense mechanisms like making excuses, avoidance, and lack of effort. Unconsciously (and incorrectly) love, respect, and value are based on successful outcomes and the praise that comes with them. An athlete thinks, “If I am not a high achiever, I’m not anything.”
A standout athlete (or academic, or trumpet player, whatever) receives praise for ability from an early age. Praise feels good, so they try harder and do better. More achievement means more recognition and attention from parents, coaches, and teachers. More attention means faster progress. Faster progress leads to more recognition and praise. Achievement becomes the cornerstone of self-worth, and the standout’s identity develops as a high achiever. The motivation isn’t growth, but to seek approval and affirm their identity. Risk and failure reveal one’s inadequacies, so this kind of kid plays it safe to remain valuable. This contributes to a fixed mindset in which striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs maintains the sense of being worthy.
Achievement orientation is perpetuated in schools too. It starts early with standardized testing. Schools go on high alert, weeks before the test. They hammer the importance of the results into the kids, run practice tests, and stoke the fire underneath the bubbling cauldron of anxiety around test day. Administrators and teachers are stressed, so are the kids.
Junior year hits hard for many kids. Athletics, academics, college of choice, SATs, GPAs, and AP classes all contain stressors that perpetuate achievement oriented “do or die” threats. This leads to overtaxed kids who put too much pressure on themselves to do well. I have seen quite a few kids professionally to help manage anxiety in this situation.
What to Look For
Be it in school or sports, tantrums are a good sign that your kiddo is overly focused on results. The sophistication of the tantrum depends on the age and maturity of the kid. When outcomes are the focus, you will notice avoiding challenging new tasks that could expose their flaws and call their talent into question. Younger kids kick and scream and cry, while older ones become avoidant, moody, or passive aggressive. Excuses rationalizing underperformance are also common. This can range from physical conditions like the venue or weather, some personal ailment or injury, or in “blame pushing” to others. Practicing better than play is also a good indicator of an achievement orientation. The outcome of a game is more consequential than practice because it is judged. You will notice performance declines as pressure increases.
To be better, praise and encourage effort over outcomes. You control your house, dinner table, and the car ride home. Make effort the most valuable commodity in your system. Putting it front and center boosts internal motivation. This is because effort-oriented feedback increases an athlete’s perceptions of competence. Also, praising the way your athlete attacks the process, and the way they figure things out, leads to a growth mindset. This is the belief that one’s basic qualities are developed, cultivated, and enhanced through individual effort. This is right thinking for sure. It opposes the myth of “the natural” who either has the athletic chops or not. You will find that anyone deemed a natural put in more effort than anyone else.
If the gold standard is achievement, day-to-day performance is compared to the athlete’s highlight reel. If the standard includes outcomes like winning or being the best, much of that is out of the athlete’s control. Their value depends on things that they can’t influence. That’s not good. Unless the athlete is having the game of their life, the only possible impression is they’re falling short. This perception presents a problem that needs to be solved. The negative thought feeling loop (as discussed in last month’s blog) kicks in. This creates mental chatter focused on negative outcomes. This compromises attention, focus, and coordination. The athlete tweaks what they are doing, parents offer unsolicited advice about what they think the problem is, and performance gets wonky. So does the car ride home. All of this is because of an imaginary problem based on assessment through the wrong lens.
Make the gold standard in your system effort.
Win, lose or draw, effort is measurable, and totally within the athlete’s control. Measuring day-to-day performance against that metric creates a mindset where challenge, adversity, and failure are perceived as an opportunity to get better, not something to avoid. Paradoxically, focus on effort leads to more consistent and better outcomes.
Let me be clear, taking the focus away from outcomes and achievement isn’t an everyone gets a trophy philosophy. It’s still about winning.
Sports and what they teach are super important. Winning is awesome. Achievement is awesome. Focusing on winning and achievement makes them more difficult to attain. Kids in systems that focus on winning and personal achievement are more prone to unravel when adversity exceeds ability. Adversity becomes a threat to their identity. Kids who develop in systems that prize effort try harder and perform at the top of their ability when adversity exceeds ability. Adversity is their bread and butter.
The Effort Praise Shift
“You played great,” becomes,
“You worked your butt off, and it shows on the field!”
Achievement orientation is a hard habit to break. As you transition to this new model of praise, watch out for feedback praising effort with back-handed achievement-oriented commentary.
Something like, "Finally... your hard work is paying off,” is not so great.
“Your hard work shows in your performance today,” is much better!
In last month’s blog, I discussed how consistent messages affirm a “good kid” or a “rotten apple,” that we are “gifted” or “challenged,” or if we “march to the beat of our own drum.” Imagine the cumulative influence of messages affirming effort in the right direction! When the cornerstone of your athlete’s identity is how hard they get after it, win, lose, or draw, they are motivated to grind. The byproduct of well-directed effort is consistent performance at the upper levels of their abilities.
Celebrate your athletes’ achievements for sure, but create a system that understands that all success, in sports and in life, come from effort in the right direction.
* * * * *
Hi, I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach at Mind Right Sports Psychology. I work with athletes and their systems, building the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes individuals, parents, teams, and organizations, from beginners to pros. No matter what level of sport, mental skills training builds a repeatable approach to performance, enabling an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently.