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Dealing with Ego and Expectation in Youth Performance Sport

Introduction

Performance sport, and in this case, youth performance sport often has many stakeholders – people who have ‘skin-in-the-game’. People who invest heavily in the identification, development and realization of young athletes often come with opinions and judgements – some fixed, some with room to grow. Navigating this area of youth sport should be done with care and ultimately all be done with the athlete or team in-mind. This review will delve into ego and its place within performance sport and the also look at the expectation that comes with it. I will endeavor to link this back to the role of the athletic development coach and where that person sits within the journey of a young athlete.


Ego in sport

I want to start by discussing ego in general and one phenomenon which I wanted to address to is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is a cognitive bias whereby people assess their own knowledge as greater than it actually is. Figure 1 demonstrates this:




Those who reach the peak of ‘Mt. Stupid’ may find themselves there indefinitely if they fail to recognize a degree of paradigm blindness about themselves. Paradigm blindness sees those who aren’t aware of the fundamental ideas that create their view of the world – they could be viewed as having a fixed mindset. They’re not able to see a particular position they hold is dependent on a part of their underpinning beliefs/philosophies. If their philosophy is false or misinterpreted, then the position in question may also be false. It takes a self-aware person to realise the flaws in their own paradigm but also an empathetic person to then see common ground with those with whom they are dealing with. In my opinion, the self-aware practitioner will never reach the ‘Plateau of sustainability’ as they will always be seeking further knowledge and development.


A common example within sport is that of the traditional practitioner, that could be a skills coach, athletic development coach or a healthcare practitioner. The traditional practitioner relies on their years in the game to confirm their reasoning and decision-making, often leaving them exposed to not realizing or appreciating new methods of achieving the same goal. These characters may be seen as having a degree of ego.


Adopting an adamant stance on a topic and defending it with no flexibility may give off the impression that one is an expert in that particular area – in this example, the physical preparation of athletes. Those who may enjoy certain debates may adopt these polarized beliefs in order to attract controversy – which in turn can fuel their ego. Performance sport often attracts characters who are often very keen to express their views and opinions. Coaches within sport may often hold the belief there are an expert in an area and see to express this trait upon others to further fuel their ego.


Therefore, delicate management of ego within performance sport is often required for any sort of improvement to occur or at least, any sort of coherence to occur. An awareness of both the characteristics of others and also one’s self is paramount in navigating through the variety of stakeholders and their respective egos. For me, an open-minded coach will bare all views in-mind but ultimately act on the athlete/team’s best interest.


Role of the coach

In my experience, athletic development coaches can be some of the most progressive and forward thinking of all coaches I’ve dealt with. I think this is because of the blend of the scientific principles and the art of coaching that contribute towards an effective coach. It was an athletic development coach who inspired me to chase the profession – the primary reason being that I think athletic development coaches are very well placed to be exceptional role-models for young sportsmen and women. On the other hand, some dealings with practitioners in this field can also be some of the most fixed and resistant to change I have come across in a modest career thus far. If someone believes they are an expert on the case at hand, that person will inherently struggle to accept challenges to that viewpoint and often react negatively to that challenge. As alluded to earlier, all decisions should be made with the initial question: “what is best for the athlete?” This question often gets lost in within the ego surrounding sport.


What is best for the player – can we as coaches empower the athlete to make their own decisions? Can an athlete be educated around the ‘why’ of athletic development so that, if they progress or transition out of their current environment, might be able to critically think about what is best for them? Certainly, a success for me when coaching is when an athlete can operate independent of my coaching and advice.


The open-minded coach will know themselves well which will, in-turn, bring a flexibility to one’s thinking, to then better make decisions or inform practice. The ability to continually challenge one’s own philosophies and beliefs will create a robust and evolving practitioner who will be able to avoid unconscious ignorance and adapt to new evidence, both scientific and anecdotal. Furthermore, this type of practitioner will be able to operate in various paradigms and therefore be a more effective and flexible coach who can adapt within a big team where differences in approach are common.


The role of the athletic development coach is a complex one and ever-changing depending on the people involved. One should aim to remain open to opinion and discussion and not become fixed within one paradigm but be able to consider many points of view in-order to positively influence their environment.


Remember your environment

I believe, to retain some perspective, one should remember their environment in order to make appropriate decisions. Some environments may require different approaches with more flexibility whereas some may need more of a black and white approach. When dealing with youth, the long-term wellbeing of the pupil should always be prioritized – not the immediate success. For example, if a young athlete is required for a crucial fixture but they are close to injury or unwell, the ego of the stakeholders involved should be put aside so the right decision is made. Conversely, if a professional team needs a senior player in a similar position, where careers and contracts may be on the line, a different decision may be appropriate. Point being, youth sport requires a different approach and way of thinking than professional sport. Problems occur however, when stakeholders involved begin to treat youth sport like it is professional sport and this is where ego and expectation can become dangerous.


Stakeholders

Youth sport sees a variety of stakeholders who all act within the best interest of the athlete/team. At least, these stakeholders believe what they are doing is within the best interest of the athletes/team and this is the very problem – the belief is too far set in stone. Problems emerge when decisions are made, clouded by ego. Parents, skills coaches, teachers, S&C coaches and medical staff will all have opinions and varying degrees of ego and often, within youth environments, conflicts are exacerbated due to the player’s lack of voice (I refer back to creating self-sufficient athletes). The open-minded practitioner will be able to rationalize with; the parent living vicariously through a child or an overly competitive coach and remember that the interest of the adolescent should be at the forefront of all decision-making. Similarly, a good S&C coach will be able to put aside differences with medical staff if it will mean better care and service for the individual. Further to this, as environments aim to professionalize their programs, expectations of these stakeholders tends to rise, further fueling the ego problem.


Expectation

Talent identification and development is very much on the rise throughout most Olympic and professional sports. The aim to find and produce the next once-in-a-generation athlete is the goal of many organizations but unfortunately, the rise in academies and talent development pathways can often see egos grow and further influence those involved in a negative way. Players can get too far ahead of themselves or parents may forget their environment or coaches may become fixed in their methods due to working for certain institutions. Research from Martindale et al. (2006), on what makes effective talent development environments shows the following principles should be consistent throughout a program:

· Focus on the process rather than the outcome

· De-Emphasize winning in the early-mid phases of development

· Prioritise enjoyment

· Messages should come coherently from a wide-range of sources


This approach removes added pressure from the young athlete and ensures enjoyment remains a focus until intensification is necessary. Enjoyment being the focus also aims to reduce the effect of ego upon all involved and therefore, the approach becomes more player-centered rather than coach or parent-centered.


Conclusion

The irony of this entire article is that while I try to impress the importance of putting one’s ego aside, I am fueling my own ego in the process – trying to influence another’s way of thinking to be more in-line with my own. Therefore, the ability to remain open-minded as a practitioner in performance sport becomes an important skill if one is to influence a positive change within their environment. Writing this article has been a reflective process which I didn’t expect before starting. I’d therefore encourage all practitioners to be reflective in their current practice and open to new evidence and methods.

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