Athletes and Their EGO


“If you want to win don’t compete.  Because once you decide they are worthy of competing with they have already won.” – Kobe Bryant

Have you let your ego control your decisions?  You know that bet you know you shouldn’t have taken, but you couldn’t resist?  That time at practice when you just couldn’t help showing the young kids who is the boss, only to end up embarrassing yourself.  Or my favorite: that broken arm or leg from a stunt you knew you had no business trying.  The stories could continue and reach far beyond just athletics.  I’m here to tell you to take a step back and ask yourself if your ego is friend or foe. 

The question we need to ask first has to be if having a “BIG” or “small” ego is more beneficial to an athlete.  I will use my own personal experience for the example.  It is safe to say that I was a high performing athlete at a young age, always making the “A” team and never being cut.  My mindset generated a high sense of self-esteem and self-importance; I was never scared of an opponent.  I was never scared to lift more weight in the weight room.  I never worried about not playing or if I would be successful on the field.  I was never worried someone would come along and taking my spot. 

What I have come to learn is that my ego was a false hero, a false entity, a false reality; it was an ‘alternative fact’ as some might say. This reality was not only created by my mind, but was fed by with my athletic success.  However, if I had a differing mindset or ego, would I have ever gained the confidence to shake off the bad games, face that tough opponent with no fear?

The mindset of athletes at all levels has been exhaustively studied and all the Greats will agree that without the right mindset, you may never reach full potential.  This is outlined in, The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance, by George Mumford who worked with Phil Jackson and other teams by teaching them mindfulness, a form of meditation.  Great champions like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant credit these teachings to helping them become better athletes and leaders on the court. 

The more practice, film study, mental reps, etc. that they can get, the better that athlete can react in the game mentally.

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinow gives some good insight on how we perceive reality and create a mindset.  Mlodinow explains how our mind can create our realities from our subconscious.  For example, in a given situation your mind will assess what is around you, and what it may know about those surroundings (Remember at the very base of our humanity is our flight or fight response, good vs. bad emotions, and those emotions relate to safe or dangerous). If you have little to no information on a subject you will subconsciously “fill in the blanks” and could end up with a skewed view of reality.  So for an athlete, that means the more practice, film study, mental reps, etc. that they can get, the better that athlete can react in the game mentally.  These few examples show the mind is a large factor in how we respond and view reality.  If we incorrectly perceive a threat, or connect something with fear, that can absolutely alter athletic performance.

So think about your own experience.  Do you think everything would have played out the same if you changed your ego?  I think of great athletes like Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson.  Boxing is a lonely sport.  Boxing is you vs. another person.  Only one person will step out of the ring victorious.  There is no one that can help and there is nowhere to run.  Think about Ali’s verbal exchange, with the current heavyweight title holder at the time, Sonny Liston.  “Hey Sucker! You’re a chump! You’re too ugly!  You are a bear!”  Though comical, if you were a bystander watching a young Ali yell these thing at the reigning champ, you would likely view Ali as having too big of an ego.  But did that help Ali become one of the greatest fighters of all time?  His quotes like “The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see, I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” helped define his legacy.  In a sport that is based only on YOUR performance, is a “BIG” ego the only way to rise to the top?  We all know about Mike Tyson’s dominance and erratic behavior in (and out of) the ring.  Could he be the great boxer he was at such a young age, becoming the youngest heavyweight champion ever with a “small” ego?  

Does ego change with the type of sport, team vs. individual (eg: baseball vs. tennis)?  When in a team setting, is it more important to be a better teammate or be the best player on the field (Kobe Bryant vs. Lebron James)?  Ego differences definitely change with the type of sport and can change the dynamic of the player.

Your culture and philosophy should be clear and understood because how you structure your team could influence how an athlete’s mindset and ego grow

The athlete’s ego needs to be discussed more and we will come back to that in a second.  I feel like we cannot talk about ego and mindset without including the coaches’ philosophies and culture.  Coaches and trainers alike should be talking about these things with their athletes, helping them grow, developing a culture and philosophy of their own. This could be done by having team meetings or one on one discussions.  More importantly, your culture and philosophy should be clear and understood because how you structure your team could influence how an athlete’s mindset and ego grow.  Here are three important aspects of developing a strong culture:

  1. Create Rituals – There must be things that you do that are unique to your culture and philosophies that create a bond with your team.  This could be anything from saying a prayer before a game, special warmups, pregame team meals, etc. 
  2. Create a language – Maybe you have a special way of saying things that is inclusive to your team.  A chant, nicknames, etc.  This is also a good way to bring the team together.  (eg: “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”)
  3. Never lose sight of who and what you are – This is when you work on building a team that does not have a problem with and can buy in with #1 and #2.  This is where you need to be able to recognize a bad apple poisoning the team.  

  Athlete’s needs to be a good teammate and be willing to do what is best for the team.  The first name that comes to mind is Lebron James.  Lebron is easily the best player of our time, but could he be a better player if he fed his ego more?  If he took more shots, didn’t pass as much, and approached the game like Jordan?  Now, before everyone has a fit, basketball has changed and I personally don’t think you can compare those two players on the court.  But what kind of player do you think a bigger ego would make him?

  If the athlete has no ego at all, the athlete will never truly rise to their potential and be great.  It would allow them to be mentally defeated in hard situations.  A great example of this is Floyd Patterson, a champion heavyweight boxer, before Sonny Liston knocked him out in a matter of seconds in the first round.  Floyd completely switched his game plan in the ring and tried to do things he couldn’t do.  A contemporary example would be the last two Rhonda Rousey fights.  In sports like boxing, tennis, or MMA when it is you vs. them, what is the perfect mix of ego that will allow you to stay humble (Floyd Patterson), but also be ruthless reaching to be being the best (Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson)?  

I believe there is a very fine line between having too much ego and not having enough of an ego.  I believe that athletes in a team setting need to have enough self- esteem and sense of self-importance to be able to handle failures and tough games on the field, which stems from having the right mindset and appropriate ego.  If I want my team to have a kind of “SWAGGER” it starts with the coach.  Coaches need to create rituals, create a language, and never lose sight of who the team is.  This allows a coach to understand and influence mindsets and egos of his/her athletes. 


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