The Competitive Advantage of Self-Forgetfulness.
The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action.
The world of elite sports is littered with big egos. This should come as no surprise. When positive attention and praise (not to mention loads of money) are heaped upon an individual for a talent they have developed through years of dedicated effort, it can be a challenge to not have a big ego.
Accordingly, we often give our cultural heroes a pass on their vanity. On some level, we feel that accomplished performers have earned the right to be a bit egotistical. After all, excellence cannot be purchased or stolen. Sure, money can provide access to the best teachers, coaches, and mentors. But no one can actually master a skill for someone else. Accordingly, there is a certain air of superiority that accompanies excellence.
The prevalence of egomaniacs among the world’s elite athletes and performers begs the question:
If you want to be one of the best at what you do, does it help to have a swollen ego?
After briefly exploring the meaning of ego, this article outlines the ways in which a preoccupation with ego concerns can negatively impact motivation, goal-setting, pressure performance, and flow. I will ultimately make the case that practices designed to keep the ego in check hold promise in enhancing performance.
What is Ego?
Ego is simply an idea of who you are that you carry around with you.
Ego, the Latin word for “I,” was introduced into the popular lexicon by Sigmund Freud. In his psychoanalytic theory, Freud positioned the ego as the part of the mind that mediates (both consciously and unconsciously) between internal drives and the constraints of social and physical reality.
For non-psychologists, ego is generally used more simply to refer to one’s sense of self or personal identity. In colloquial usage, the word ego almost always carries a negative connotation and is associated with vanity, megalomania, and narcissism. For the purposes of this article ego will be used to refer to one’s self-concept, exaggerated or not.
Ego and Motivation
As explained in a previous article, Seeking Mastery, research in both sport and educational psychology has revealed that the way an individual construes the meaning of success and failure in achievement settings (achievement orientation) is predictive of important differences in performance.
Individuals with a predominantly competitive or ego-orientation (success = superiority over others) are more vulnerable to competitive anxiety, negative self-talk, escape thoughts, and self-handicapping behaviors, particularly when faced with the possibility of failure. Task or mastery-orientation (success = improvement over time), on the other hand, is associated with greater intrinsic motivation, persistence in the face of difficulty, and better overall performance.
These differences have been attributed to the fact that ego-oriented individuals are more likely to perceive performance failure as a threat to their sense of self-worth. Thus, individuals with a dispositional task or mastery orientation are generally considered better equipped to handle pressure and other competition related challenges than their ego-oriented counterparts.
Take-away strategy: Focus on task mastery.
Ego and Goal-Setting
Achievement-orientation is often reflected in goals. Ego-oriented individuals often focus almost exclusively on outcome goals (e.g. win the tournament, set a world record) whereas those with a mastery orientation are more likely to set process goals (e.g. maintain good footwork, follow-through completely).
Outcome goals tend to generate more pressure than process goals because the outcomes of competitions generally depend on a number of factors that are outside of the individual performer’s control such as external conditions, teammates’ or opponents’ performance, referees and judges, and good ol’ lady luck.
By adopting goals that are task-involved (focused on enjoyment and personal improvement) rather than ego-involved (focused on demonstration of superiority), athletes and performers are far less likely to be derailed by the increased anxiety, reduced confidence, and diminished performance that often accompany the failure to achieve outcome goals.
Take-away strategy: Set process goals.
Ego and Pressure
Ego concerns play a central role in the feeling of “pressure” in competitive settings. One theoretical model goes as far as suggesting that self-presentation concerns should be considered the fundamental causative factor in the phenomenon of choking under pressure.
According to the self-presentation model, “pressure” amounts to a heightened awareness of the potential social implications of a poor performance for one’s public self-image. This is what sport psychologist Michael Gervais calls “FOPO” (fear of other people’s opinions). Performance anxiety, then, can be viewed as a form of social anxiety that “revolves around the self-presentational implications of competition” (Leary, 1992).
Because pressure cannot exist without a context, it must continually be manufactured through storytelling. Sports and other performance domains provide a backdrop in which ego concerns take center stage as competitors attempt to bolster their public image through performance outcomes. By detaching from the compulsion to situate oneself within a dramatic narrative, performers can free themselves from the anxiety that accompanies the need to portray an idealized self-image to others.
Easier said than done, of course.
Take-away strategy: Drop the storyline.
Ego and Flow
The state of flow, which is psychologese for being “in the zone,” is widely regarded by performers and psychologists alike as the ultimate antidote to choking. Defined as a state of total absorption in an optimally challenging and intrinsically satisfying activity, flow implies a complete absence of ego-consciousness.
In one of the earliest empirical studies of flow states in sports, Susan Jackson (1992) found that loss of self-consciousness increases the intensity of the flow experience. Conversely, when the self becomes salient, flow is disrupted and performance typically declines. Masters and Maxwell (2008) articulated the relationship between flow and self-consciousness most succinctly with the aphorism “conscious flow is broken flow.”
It is not only negative thoughts such as performance worries or ruminations on mistakes that can derail flow. Even positive evaluations or anticipation of favorable outcomes (i.e. future-tripping) present an obstacle to the sort of present moment awareness that is considered a prerequisite for flow.
Take-away strategy: Stay in the moment.
The aim of this article was to persuade the reader that, despite the obvious and well-established correlation between self-esteem and achievement, having a massive ego is not necessarily conducive to optimal performance and even carries some inherent disadvantages.
Specifically, viewing performance as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement can have counterproductive effects such as:
Undermining intrinsic motivation
Prioritizing unpredictable outcome goals
Increasing vulnerability to competitive stress
Disrupting flow states
The brief discussion of these risks also hinted at some potential strategies for reducing susceptibility to ego-threat:
Focus on mastery
Set process goals
Drop the storyline
Stay in the moment
Each of these strategies, though not elaborated upon here, are worthy topics in their own right that will be explored in greater detail in separate posts. In the meantime, stay humble and thirsty my friends, and lego that ego.
With you in the pursuit,
Achievement goals and intrinsic motivation: A Meta-analytic review, by Rawsthorne & Elliot, 1999
Self-presentation origins of choking: Evidence from separate pressure manipulations, by Mesagno, Harvey, & Janelle, 2011
Self-presentation processes in exercise and sport, by Mark Leary, 1992
Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990
Athletes in Flow: A qualitative investigation of flow states in elite figure skaters, by Susan Jackson, 1992
The Theory of Reinvestment, by Masters & Maxwell, 2008