Freeing Yourself from Ego as an Athlete
"When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass."
- Dale Wimbrow
U.S. Olympic Swim coach Bob Bowman, the coach of a little-known swimmer named Michael Phelps relentlessly reinforces the idea in all of his swimmers that the only path to ultimate success is to stop comparing themselves to others and focus intensely on self-improvement. This is drilled into the swimmers almost as much as the endless laps they swim. World class athletes who focus on beating other world-class athletes don’t make great progress and may only do just well enough. Those athletes who strive to improve upon themselves break world records and enjoy every millisecond of it. Loving the game and not the gold medal that comes with success is the key to satisfaction in sport and contentment with yourself.
Freeing yourself from the tyranny and torment of ego as an athlete is a monumental challenge and one that lies between most athletes and greater satisfaction with their game.
Ego means you’re wrapped up in your comparison to others rather than enjoying the game and striving for self-improvement.
For ultimate satisfaction in life and in sport, on a deep level, you should only be comparing yourself to yourself, as in your past self, specifically. I know that we hear the great Buddhist mantra of living in the present moment only and not living in the past or future as the way to an enlightened life, but success and enlightenment aren't perfect partners and in order to get ultimate satisfaction out of life, it’s a very good idea to continue to make forward progress, which requires both reflection and planning out what you can improve upon with dream goals.
Comparison between great athletes only comes at a superficial level because you have to know what your fellow competitors are capable of so that you don’t miss the boat completely. Beyond that, as Teddy Roosevelt said, comparison becomes the thief of joy.
Part of the difficulty with freeing yourself from ego as an athlete is that most competitive athletes want to win, whether they admit it or not.
Muhammad Ali stated “to be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.”
Memorable performances, the type that goes down in history, begin with visualizing success. You have to have complete confidence that you will win, while still remaining detached from the ultimate outcome. It’s a dialectic disaster.
All you need is love.
The key is that you’ve got to love the sport that you’re competing in. We see athletes keep pushing forward well past their prime for one of two reasons: they’ve left something external unfinished that is ultimately an empty accomplishment like a championship ring or setting some record, or they love the sport so much that they just can’t let go.
"You’ve got to love what you’re doing. If you love it, you can overcome any handicap or the soreness or all the aches and pains.” - Gordie Howe
Now is a great time to spend the five minutes to watch Kobe Bryant’s "Dear Basketball” and understand what love and passion for a game are all about.
You’ve got to love the game but don’t be married to it.
"The trick is to realize that after giving your best, there’s nothing more to give. … Win or lose the game is finished. It’s over. It’s time to forget and prepare for the next one.” - Sparky Anderson
It's a very Stoic approach to sports. You give everything you've got to each day of practice, each competition, fully immerse yourself into loving every second of it, and then let it go - win, lose, or draw.
While dedicated athletes get caught up in making their sport a top priority in their life, and need to, admittedly, in order to continue to make improvements or hope to make a career out of it, it’s important to still enjoy the journey and not tie everything to the outcome.
"When the game is over I just want to look at myself in the mirror, win or lose, and know I gave it everything I had." - Joe Montana
Whether you think competitiveness exists external to an athlete or is an internal driver of success and improvement, ego is always going to be a grand challenge for athletes. Remember why you fell in love with your sport in the first place and turn your attention to the process rather than the outcome.