A Visit to the Archives: It's all in your head

For our second trip through the BroSesh Sunday's archive, we're re-visiting a blog that Coach Phil wrote on the two different mental approaches to sport, training and competition: Ego-Orientated Athletes and Task-Orientated Athletes.

Enjoy this great read and watch out for our follow-up blog on how we use one of these approaches (can you guess which one?!) to structure our programming and cycles at CrossFit 1864.


Motivation and Success

Research has looked into athletes’ mental approaches to their sports (1, 2, 3). From these studies, two types stand out from the crowd: ego-orientated athletes and task-orientated athletes.

Ego-orientated athletes are very outcome / goal-focused, and aim to achieve a specific result. These athletes get their motivation and feelings of success through winning, by beating the field and being the best of the best.

Task-orientated athletes are motivated more by the act of completing the task at hand. Their goal tends to be based around achieving mastery over the relevant skills, and by achieving this mastery, they experience their feelings of success and motivation.


But which approach is best…and the most healthy?

As an ego-orientated athlete, you tend to have the biggest emotional rollercoaster rides. There are periods of great success (for some), but alongside these, are periods of feelings of ‘failure’ (for all). The problem is that, in any sport or competition, only one person / team walk out as ‘the best‘. If you are an ego-orientated athlete, then anything less than that status is failure.

What has been noted by researchers is that these athletes tend to struggle to perform when it really matters. When surrounded by their peers, the anxiety and fear of failure is so huge that they often under-perform. However during training, and often in the company of those less physically capable, they tend to flourish. This is not to say these athletes don’t experience success, those that have outlets or coping mechanisms for competition nerves and anxiety will often perform to the best of their ability.

Task-orientated athletes are thought to take the most ‘enjoyment‘ out of the training and / or sport. They train because they enjoy it, they get to do something they love and feel part of a team or community. They are motivated by developing themselves within their sport and learning to master new skills. These athletes are said to experience greater feelings of success and lower levels of fear and anxiety than the ego-orientated athlete.

We are all motivated by different influences and we all have different drivers, but a healthy approach to your sport is one of task orientation. So if next time you train (or you coach an athlete), don’t focus on the result. Instead, ask these questions:

  • Did you have fun?
  • Did you try your best for that day?
  • What did you learn from the session? (What went well or not so well)
  • How can you develop from this session to the next?

Athletes who are free from fears and anxieties are able to focus on learning ways to improve and leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit of continuing development. The essence of a task-orientated athlete and their core motives to perform are often summed up in the phrase “Be the best that I can be”.


Taking the leap, and overcoming ‘The Fear’

Regardless of our motivations, we will all at some point experience performance anxiety and the fear of failure. Whilst this is all part of our learning curve, it can also be detrimental to our success.

Those that take risks will often experience greater levels of success and tend to make faster progress than those who stay within their comfort zones and fear failure. As we all know, taking risks does not always pay off, but this only becomes a negative thing when we have no mechanism to cope with the potential ‘failure’.

First, one needs to acknowledge the fact that both fear and failure exist, and they will both be experienced several times during your training and competing.

If and when you fail at a task, try to use a task-orientated approach to analyse what happened. You can quickly turn ‘failure’ into an opportunity for development, growth and mastery. Ask what went well or not so well? How can you improve for the next time? etc.

If approached in the right way, failure can easily be developed in to a positive, and understanding this will make you more likely to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and take leaps of faith every now and then.