“DO WORK. NO EGO”
This is written on the board in the gym. A reminder that we all are there for a purpose and that purpose has nothing to do with making others feel inadequate, or comparing our progress to others. Applying this mindset to our training environment allows us to recognize strengths and weaknesses freely, as a way to improve collectively, on an individual basis. This message applies to coaches and athletes alike. Personally, it is a reminder that I am there to serve them, to the best of my ability. It is not about me!
What do I mean when I say Ego?
At its root, ego is a term used by Sigmund Freud to define one of three areas of the psyche (the others being id and superego). However, more commonly its used to express our sense of self, and more directly a conflated sense of self.
When I use the term ego for coaches or athletes, its specifically directed at the toxic evaluation of self that leads to the belief that they are more important than others in the room. This sense of self can be real or projected.
Real, meaning that the player or coach has a resume of accomplishments and talents leading them to actually believe that they are above others and act in a way which diminishes others contributions, worth and right to share the space.
Projected, meaning these actions come from a place of insecurity, which results in overcompensating behaviours which reflect the same characteristics of those with ‘real’ toxic egos, though often more targeted at those who are perceived as weak, or threatening.
Confidence vs. Ego
But coach, don’t we want our athletes to be confident? YES!
Confidence is a great thing! It is empowering and leads to optimal performance both on the field/ice and in life. It gives us the freedom to be creative, confront challenges and bounce back from failures.
Confidence, however is not synonymous with ego.
Confidence comes from a sense that we possess the skills and tools to accomplish the tasks we value. However, it acknowledges the role that others play in our ability to do so.
Additionally, a confident person admits when they are wrong, helps others to understand what they know and approaches tasks with intent and purpose.
In contrast, ego resists criticism, looks down on others who are not as accomplished and approaches tasks with laissez-faire attitude. I would argue that the confident seek to empower themselves, while the ego seeks to bury others. It is my feeling that often people who project toxic ego, are attempting to project confidence, but lack self awareness.
What to do when confronted with Egos?
Role Modeling – We can’t expect our athletes and other coaches to do things we aren’t willing to do ourselves. But what does this look like/sound like? For coaches often the first step is to acknowledge and come to terms with the fact that they do not know all! Once we have done this we become open to feedback, questions and criticisms. We can then share in meaningful dialogue with our athletes around their training programs and be open to ways that would better suit each individual in achieving their goals. In addition, this creates an environment of learning for the athlete, which promotes a deeper internalization of the training concepts, resulting in everyone’s favorite concept, ‘BUY IN.’
Create Environment Where that is Abnormal – Taking advantage of the typical human desire to fit in is the easiest way to eliminate ego driven behaviours. Build an environment that encourages and lifts up those who are exhibiting purpose and process driven training. Reward those seeking deeper understanding and asking questions. Champion positive language and reward those who are building up others with attention. Most importantly do not invest too much energy, in the moment, into those exhibiting negative behaviours.
Facilitate Discussions About the Expectations – It isn’t possible for athletes and coaches to adhere to an expectation that is not specifically addressed. If the only training experience one has is in a space driven by ego (not competition, that’s different), than it is only fair that we lay out what it means to “leave the ego at the door” and focus on the process. Have all involved agree on what a positive training environment looks like, sounds like, feels like. What are some rules both personally and as a group which will help ensure that everyone is held accountable?
Assess the Source of Behaviour – This is often not so black and white as ‘real,’ or ‘projected’ ego which I discussed arlier, as I would argue that there is often an overlap of the two. However, it remains that a very talented player, for whom personal success has always outweighed team success is going to responded very differently than a good player who is fearful of being surpassed by the competition. Both could project similar traits, but the conversations and strategies to help integrate them into a positive work space will be different. One might respond to acknowledgment of the efforts they are making, in order to feel validation. While the other might understand how the whoe is greater than the sum of its parts.
Additionally, as mentioned above, many athletes may not have an example in their history of what a positive training environment consists of. Many coaches still lean on the ‘Old School’ approach of screaming, yelling, intimidating, basically ruling from a place of fear rather than respect. For these athletes they have never been able to let their guard down in the training environment.
The thing that I hear too frequently is that we are all getting ‘soft,’ or that we are too sensitive. The flawed idea that somehow beating up on athletes mentally is going to improve their ‘mental toughness,’ and look at how navy seals are trained. There are a myriad of things to be unpacked about each of those statements and concepts. However, my biggest focus of this article is the idea that no one persons right to train is more important than any others in my sessions. And that by creating a space where people are focused on their own individual process and not discouraged by the abilities of others, it will allow for everyone to improve at the pace that is optimal for them.
Additionally, ego is the enemy of the process. It clouds the athletes ability to focus on the long term, in favour of immediate gratification to feed the desire to demonstrate dominance. It’s the ‘every day is max-out day’ mentality. When we remove ego, the athlete can now focus on incremental attention to detail and trusting the process.
Concurrently, we must be aware of the impact we can have on our athletes outside of the realm of sport. Giving them permission to be vulnerable, communicative, inquisitive and have compassion within a traditionally ‘tough’ space, will help develop tools that will serve them in relationships, careers and beyond.
I hope you enjoyed this exploration around how I create a positive and inclusive training environment. Please comment, like, share and get the conversation going!
The Athlete Defender