If there is one thing that will stunt your growth as an athlete, both in training and in competition, it’s letting your ego get in the way. Specifically, that part of you that worries about how you look, and what other people are thinking. I’ve seen it in other athletes and experienced it myself, in every single sport I’ve played over the past thirty years. The worst part is, it’s not just the newbies that become ensnared in the trap — I’ve seen some extremely promising careers cut short because the athlete was too worried about looking good in front of spectators, and as a result lost competitions they could have won.
I’ve also seen it manifest in athletes who are top level contenders, but always seem to get an injury, or sick, when the big competition comes along. They show up for the mid tier competitions where they wipe the floor with everyone, but when the best of the best come together to compete, they’re absent. Even more tragic is the fact that they could win even against the top tier if they could just get out of their own way. Finally, I’ve also seen it in the form of athletes being two different people. Their first persona is the one at training — loose, relaxed, and at their best. The second persona is the one in competition, where they all of a sudden develop stage fright. They can’t get over their nerves, or they self handicap. The result? They don’t do anywhere near as well as they should. In the worst examples, they completely self destruct:
I still remember Greg Norman’s meltdown in the final round of the US Masters, and I remember vividly Jana Novotna in tears after losing the Wimbledon final, when she double faulted and lost the chance to take a 5–1 lead in the final set. Graf won the next 5 games straight to take the title.
The psychological aspect of athletics is one of the most important things to get right, because even if you have everything else down to a science and perfect, you can undo all of it if you haven’t got your head screwed on straight when it matters. The individual athlete has it so much harder here, because they don’t have a team around them to take any of the burden. That’s what makes the ego such a big part of choking, because you know that everyone is looking at you. So the question is, how do you get this right? I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve got some thoughts based on my own experiences and observations of others.
Your mindset at competition begins at training. Always remember, you compete how you train. If you let your ego get in the way of training properly, it’s going to destroy you come competition time. There are two main pitfalls I see when it comes to ego in training:
- Spending too much time on the things you’re good at
- Worrying about winning and looking good
The first is very common, because let’s face it, we all like doing the things that we’re good at. It makes us feel good, because those skills increase much more quickly. On the other hand, hammering away at our weaknesses, that’s tough. It’s not fun, it’s physically and mentally more taxing, and you usually see smaller results from greater effort. The problem is that working only on your strengths leaves great big holes on competition day. It doesn’t matter whether you compete in strength sports or combat sports, when you have holes in your game, you’re not adaptable to what happens on the day, and the pressure on your strengths increases to take the load. If you’re a strongman or Crossfitter and there are events on competition day that you stink at, all of a sudden you now have to be at the top on the events you are good at to remain in contention. If you’re a fighter, the holes in your game have to be protected at all costs, lest your opponent take advantage of them.
Lesson 1: Don’t neglect or pay lip service to your weaknesses. Hammer away at them as much as you need to for the level you are competing at. An aspect of your game that is average at state level will need further work when you move up so it’s not a weakness at national level. Every level you move up requires more work on your weaknesses to ensure they don’t undo you. Don’t get caught up in the feel good, ego stroking pursuit of always working on your strengths.
The second isn’t so obvious, and takes a more acute eye to spot it. I saw this so much in judo, especially among the up and coming green and blue belts. That’s the time when you need to be stretching yourself and fighting brown and black belts at training, because they’re faster and more skilled than you are. Unfortunately, green/blue belt is usually the time when you finally start tasting some modest success at training. You’ve got the hang of your balance, and now you can usually throw yellow and orange belts around a little bit. It’s so easy to just keep fighting them, because the feeling of superiority is addictive. Doing that will completely kill your development and will cause you to get beaten in competition by people that are stretching themselves at training.
I still remember back when I was a brown belt, there was a green belt a weight division above me who was strong, fast, and had excellent technique. He shouldn’t have been a green belt really, but that’s irrelevant. None of the green and blue belts wanted to fight him during sparring. He’d throw them around and they didn’t want to look bad. I fought him every chance I got — and for every throw I got on him, he returned the favour with two or three. He was two grades below me, but I couldn’t have cared less how I looked, because the amount of effort I had to put in to get a throw on him pushed me to my limit, which meant I was improving every aspect of my game whenever I fought him. Getting your ass kicked in training is a gift, and something you should seek out every time you train. Training isn’t meant to be easy and you’re not there to look good. If that’s how you train, competitions are going to suck for you.
Lesson 2: Stop worrying about what other people think at training, and push yourself. Forget about failing that lift, getting punched by the newcomer, or looking bad during sparring. Training is for improving, not for impressing people. Get to work, and work hard. There’s a great saying that goes “we don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training”. If you spend all your sessions staying in your comfort zone or worrying about what people around you are thinking, you’ll bring that same anxiety into competition, and it will cripple you.
Training Consistently and Appropriately
One of the easiest ways to eliminate the need to impress others or the reverse side of that coin, feeling humiliated by failure, is to follow those two lessons. The one thing that strikes me about the best guys I know in a number of sports is that they’re never worried about the outcome. They’ve been consistent in their training week to week, month to month, for years, so they know exactly what level their abilities are at. They don’t have to worry about failing a lift, or an inferior opponent beating them, because their training gives them confidence.
A lot of the people I see that get worried about how they look should be worried, and that’s because they haven’t put in enough time and effort at training. Of course you’re going to be worried about embarrassing yourself, because you know you haven’t put the work in and aren’t living up to your potential, so you’re projecting your own disappointment in yourself onto the people watching. The first question you should be asking yourself going into every competition is “have I trained hard enough for this?” If the honest answer is no, then cut the bullshit and do the work.
Be realistic with your goals
Too many people enter a competition with the goal of winning, or finishing in a certain place. That’s the worst goal you can possibly have, because it’s pure ego talking. You’re only after a result that makes you look good. First of all, such goals are outside your control, and second, you might not actually be up to it. If you’ve made the Crossfit Games for the first time, setting yourself a goal of getting on the podium would be ludicrous. Worse yet, if you tell everyone that’s your goal, you’re going to have an even worse time time of it, because every event where you don’t do well will put more pressure on you to do really well in the next. You’ll spend the entire competition beating yourself up, and you’ll do far worse than you would have if you’d kept your goals realistic and not told anyone.
One of my judo coaches once told me “your goal should never be to beat your opponent, because whenever you get scored against, you’ll feel under more pressure, you’ll make mistakes, you’ll fight worse and you’ll lose. Your goal should be for every minute that passes on the clock, you fight better, you fight smarter, you focus more. Those are things you can control and will help you to win”.
Moving into strongman, I’ve found my best performances so far have come from assessing what I can realistically do in a given event, and striving to hit that. I have 3 goals:
- What I absolutely will hit no matter what, even if I’m not feeling great
- What I should be able to hit based off my training and a bit of “meet magic”
- What I might be able to get if everything goes amazingly well
The first one gives me comfort in my abilities. The third gives me something to keep in the back of my mind to strive for if the conditions are right. But the middle one is what I plan for on competition day. For instance, in the monster dumbbell event at the Arnold Classic this year, I managed 4 reps in 60 seconds. I knew I could get at least one rep at my worst, but probably 2 or 3 if I took my time and concentrated. 4 if everything went really well. So when the whistle blew, I had my first rep up comfortably within 15 seconds. I took a couple of seconds to compose myself, and went for the second. Same thing for the 3rd. There was 10 seconds to go, so I rushed it and got the 4th out. It was a result much better than I expected, and I walked away very happy.
What do you notice about the goal there? I didn’t say anything about who I was looking to beat, where I wanted to place or mention the hundreds of people watching me. Because I set a goal that was completely within my control, and because that was my only focus, I took my time and did what I needed to do. If I’d been worried about how I looked or where I placed, I would have rushed every attempt and more than likely gotten less reps, because I would have botched some of the attempts.
Have a plan that’s in line with your goals
Having a plan stops you from losing your head. It stops you from worrying about the people watching, and the other people competing. When you have a plan, you have all the steps you need to concentrate on to do your best on the day. When you’re going into an event or match, the only thing you’re worried about is executing the plan. That alone is enough to stop you from self destructing, because self destructing comes when you worry about your position and losing it. Check out the video below, it’s of the aforementioned monster dumbbell event at the Arnold Classic. My plan was simple and realistic: one lift per 20 seconds, no faster. Get each rep clean, wait for the call, and then reset.
On the contrary, when it came to the atlas stones at the final event, I lost my head. I didn’t stick to the plan. I should have gotten 3 or 4 repetitions, but because I was worried about how fast the guy next to me might have been going, I went for the second too quickly, wasted a lot of energy trying to get it up and missed it, blowing the event. Turns out he only got 1 rep as well, and if I’d just stuck to the plan, I would have done much better.
How might this look for you? Here are a few possibilities:
- If you’re a boxer, the goal might be to maintain pressure on your opponent. The plan to achieve that might be to jab a certain amount of times in a round.
- If you’re a judo player, the goal might be to deny your opponent easy opportunities. The plan is then to continually attack with foot sweeps.
- If you’re a crossfitter, it might be to maintain a specific pace in a running event, because your goal is to put in a good time while saving your energy for the next event.
Notice that none of these rely on the opponent — they’re what you are aiming to do.
Final lesson: just relax, and get the hell off of social media
Some people just make the competition and their performance far bigger than it needs to be. They have this frenzied attitude that the whole world is riding on them winning some competition and if they don’t, everyone they know will think less of them. That level of psychological issue is something you’d want to see a specialist for, but for my two cents, you’ve got to learn to chill. Anyone who thinks less of you for not performing at your best isn’t worth your time and besides, critics in general aren’t worth your time. You’re the one out there giving your all, so the opinions of the people that aren’t there shouldn’t even enter your head.
Finally, stop posting your goals and what you’re doing on social media. You’re creating further pressure on yourself by doing that, because you’re showing everyone what you’re doing and creating an expectation. Likewise telling everyone how great you’re going to do at the next competition now places you under pressure to do what you said you would. That kind of accountability is stupid, and completely ego driven. Keep that stuff to yourself, so on the day you’re only accountable to you. You don’t need any added pressure.
I hope that’s given you some insight into how your ego can destroy your chances in competition, and how to avoid it. Sports psychology is a huge topic, so obviously there will be more to come on this subject in future posts. If there is an aspect of it that you want me to talk about, please let me know in the comments. If you have a question or idea for a future post, please let me know!
This is an excerpt from my book, Building the Elite Athlete.