Courage: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty
Courage is the willingness to put your self on the line knowing that you might fail.
Ego: the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world
Ego is your comparison to others. It is the little voice telling you the risk isn’t worth the reward – to preserve your self-image, you should run away from the courageous action and protect what you already have.
Every day, we face a question that pits our courage against our ego – “Am I good enough?”
I wrote this from my current perspective as a coach, but know that it would not be a stretch to replace the word coach with teacher/administrator, or players with students/teachers. While the way we work with our players/students/teachers may differ slightly, the questions asked and lessons learned are very similar.
Am I good enough?
Coaching requires constant attention to individual personalities and the ways players on a team connect with each other. Confidence comes and goes, emotions rise and fall. Plays don’t work if players don’t believe in themselves or each other. The answer to the question “Am I good enough?” may be the difference between individual or team success and failure.
The first part of the answer to the question is a resounding yes (with a caveat). As a coach, the answer is yes, you are on my team and you are good enough just as you are. They may have been chosen to be on the team, or maybe they are just what you’ve been given. In either case, the coach must work with what they have. Answering no will lead nowhere.
As a player, your ego says yes because you know you’ve been selected or because you are protecting yourself from the possibility that you do not meet some arbitrary criteria. You know that if you weren’t good enough you wouldn’t be here. But you also know you may not be as good as others around you.
Player and coach know there is room for improvement and potential for being better. The second part of the answer is, “Don’t be satisfied.” If you get better, we get better.
One phrase that my high school football coach always used was, “You’re getting better or you’re getting worse.” Being good is relative, and if everyone else is getting better while you stay the same, it means you are now relatively worse. If our team doesn’t steadily improve, that means everyone else is catching to or moving past us. Staying the same is a recipe for disaster.
The Daily test of criticism
Every day is a test, whether it is an interaction with others or self-judgment, a coach and athlete are comparing themself to a standard. A missed layup leads to self-criticism. A coach’s feedback of “Do this better” creates more questions – “Can I do it better? If I try and don’t do it better, does that mean I’m not good enough?”
Criticism creates vulnerability and a list of other questions – Am I as good as I think I am? Do other people, teammates, coaches, fans, think I’m no good? How can I make everyone else believe that I’m still good? This is where the ego steps in focused on self preservation with different forms of armor.
Our ego will do almost anything to avoid or minimize the discomfort associated with feeling vulnerable or even being curious, because it’s too risky. What will people think? What if I learn something unpleasant or uncomfortable about myself?
Protecting our ego and fitting in is why we reach for armor in situations where we think being liked or respected is at risk because we may be wrong, or not have all of the answers, or might get in over our heads and not look smart enough. We also go on lockdown when our emotions may be perceived by others in a way that we can’t manage or control. If I’m honest about how I’m feeling, will I be misunderstood, judged, seen as weak? Will my vulnerability change the way you think of me or my ability?
All of these lead to the biggest threat to our ego and our sense of self-worth: shame. Shame is the feeling that washes over us and makes us feel so flawed that we question whether we’re worthy of love, belonging and connection.
It is impossible to play a sport without being vulnerable and without experiencing shame at some point. Every time you take a shot, make a pass, attempt to defend an opponent, you might make a mistake. And someone else might see it. Your teammates might be disappointed in you. Others might criticize you. They might even laugh at you.
In the face of criticism, or after making a mistake, the ego tells you to push outward – shrug your shoulders, roll your eyes, throw up your arms in exasperation. Let everyone know that it wasn’t all your fault. Even if these projections work and let you save face with others, you have also stolen something from yourself – the opportunity to grow. Without acceptance and vulnerability – that mistake was mine and I will learn from it – your learning will be limited.
The best athletes play without thinking. They talk about a state of flow and letting the game happen, unconsciously making decisions as a play unfolds. In this state of mind, vulnerability is far from your mind until after you’ve released the ball or hear the crowd’s reaction.
Conscious thinking leads to mistakes. Free throws, crowd noise, pressure situations in which you a positive or negative result will define the game and, if you let it, you. More than often, this places the weight of vulnerability squarely on your shoulders. It is impossible to avoid.
This is why we love competition. It creates moments of vulnerability and we want to see how others respond. We want to see how we will respond in a difficult moment. Play enough games and you will experience failure.
You could say that failure always arrives uninvited, but, through our ego, far too many of us allow it to stick around.
Ryan Holliday points out, in his book Ego is the Enemy, that we can’t avoid failure, but we can keep it from overwhelming us. So what is it that players feel when they hear criticism? What keeps them from hearing the words being said? What opens them up to learning from the criticism (from others or self-imposed)?
The power of team
In team sports, there is a chance that your teammates will help you out, save you from the toughest situations, or pick you up after them. Our feeling of vulnerability increases or decreases depending on the trust we have in our teammates.
While the ego is powerful and demanding, it’s just a tiny part of who we are. The heart is giant by comparison, and its free, wholehearted wisdom can drown out the smallness of needing to be liked…
Wholehearted wisdom, in the sports world, is trust in your teammates and coaches. Will they help me if I make a mistake? Will they pick me up if I miss this shot? Will they still pass me the ball? Will they still put me in the game? Do they still want me to be on their team?
Great teams answer these questions with yes. Great teams know the answer is yes before and after challenges are faced.
It Starts with me
Over my six years as a head coach, it has been a constant work in progress to create a culture of the unsatisfied yes. Teenagers demonstrate an unusual combination of severe susceptibility to criticism and capability of bouncing back from adversity. While I dwell on a loss for days sometimes, they are laughing by the end of the bus ride home. Some of this is their ego armor protecting from tough conversations, but there is also value in the ability to move on. Often, it helps me move on, too.
Two things that I know open players up – being vulnerable myself, and letting them know they are good enough.
For the latter, I have to spend more time building players up than criticizing them. For all the feedback I want to give, I have of focus it – “It’s not what you teach, it’s what you emphasize.” I have to be aware of both the quantity and quality of my feedback – what is the value of one powerful compliment or one thoughtful critique versus many small Good jobs or Do this betters.
For the former, I have to take responsibility for my mistakes. I have to show that I am a work in progress, and I also have to show growth. Owning mistakes and letting them persist will permit the same in my players. My words will let players know I own the mistakes. My actions will let them know if I have grown from them.
In a recent team meeting, I shared much of this message and I also showed them my own huge mistake that, fortunately, didn’t cost us a game. I told them about the thin line between courage and stupidity, which is often simply determined by the result of a play. In this case, the result of my decision made my stupidity clear. I made sure that the player who looked bad on the court had the blame taken off his shoulders.
I am constantly asking Am I Good Enough – to make this team better, to help us win any games – or am I getting in the way of our success? No one is going to answer that for me. I have to answer it for myself. Honestly, I don’t have the answer, but I am working hard to be good enough for you.
If you choose courage, you will absolutely know failure, disappointment, setback, even heartbreak. That is why we call it courage. That is why it’s so rare. – Brene Brown
If I can’t face ‘failure, disappointment, setback, even heartbreak,’ then I know for a fact I am not good enough. My ego will tell me to shy away. My courage, however, must remind me that the only way for me to be good enough for my team is to face a challenge and grow.