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Defining Self in a World of Errors

An Athlete's Quest for Performance Perfection

Todd Monger, MA, LPC, NCC

Remember when playing was something we did for fun? When it did not matter what the outcome was, as long as we had fun doing it. Somewhere between needing something to do after school and being accepted by others, the fun factor was diminished by the competitive factor. While fun was still a core value within competition, the real drive was to find value, purpose and meaning in life by proving we were, or could be, better than the next person.

Psychiatrist Erik Erickson, a prominent psychosocial developmental theorist, postulated that personal development occurs by successfully moving through eight social-emotional development stages or crisis. Individuals who did not successfully navigate each stage would result in a form of 'social retardation or stagnation.'

1. Infancy: Birth to 18 Months

Ego Development Outcome: Trust vs. Mistrust
Basic strength: Drive and Hope

2. Early Childhood: 18 Months to 3 Years

Ego Development Outcome: Autonomy vs. Shame
Basic Strengths: Self-control, Courage, and Will

3. Play Age: 3 to 5 Years

Ego Development Outcome: Initiative vs. Guilt
Basic Strength: Purpose

4. School Age: 6 to 12 Years

Ego Development Outcome: Industry vs. Inferiority
Basic Strengths: Method and Competence

5. Adolescence: 12 to 18 Years

Ego Development Outcome: Identity vs. Role Confusion
Basic Strengths: Devotion and Fidelity

Up to this stage, according to Erikson, development mostly depends upon what is done to us. From here on out, development depends primarily upon what we do. And while adolescence is a stage at which we are neither a child nor an adult, life is definitely getting more complex as we attempt to find our own identity, struggle with social interactions, and grapple with moral issues.

Our task is to discover who we are as individuals separate from our family of origin and as members of a wider society. Unfortunately for those around us, in this process many of us go into a period of withdrawing from responsibilities, which Erikson called a "moratorium." And if we are unsuccessful in navigating this stage, we will experience role confusion and upheaval.

A significant task for us is to establish a philosophy of life and in this process we tend to think in terms of ideals, which are conflict free, rather than reality, which is not. The problem is that we don't have much experience and find it easy to substitute ideals for experience. However, we can also develop strong devotion to friends and causes.

It is no surprise that our most significant relationships are with peer groups.

6. Young adulthood: 18 to 35

Ego Development Outcome: Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation
Basic Strengths: Affiliation and Love

In the initial stage of being an adult we seek one or more companions and love. As we try to find mutually satisfying relationships, primarily through marriage and friends, we generally also begin to start a family, though this age has been pushed back for many couples who today don't start their families until their late thirties. If negotiating this stage is successful, we can experience intimacy on a deep level.

If we're not successful, isolation and distance from others may occur. And when we don't find it easy to create satisfying relationships, our world can begin to shrink as, in defense, we can feel superior to others.

Our significant relationships are with marital partners and friends.

7. Middle Adulthood: 35 to 55 or 65

Ego Development Outcome: Generativity vs. Self absorption or Stagnation
Basic Strengths: Production and Care

8. Late Adulthood: 55 or 65 to Death

Ego Development Outcome: Integrity vs. Despair
Basic Strengths: Wisdom

(Harder, 2002)

The "Room for Error Diagram" connects to this theory in a way that suggests teenage athletes are facing more than just skill development and mastery. In addition to being competitive they are also seeking to define themselves, "be someone," find his or her niche in life. This can therefore be a set up for increased pressure in the playing field, along with creating greater psychological distraction, and contributing to increased levels of frustration, anger and in turn physiological reactions.


Explaining the "Room for Error Diagram"

Figure A

When people start out in a new sport it is often because it looks fun, relaxing, enjoyable or is socially appealing. At this stage, the athlete allows him or herself extensive room for error. They are relaxed, non-confrontational, forgiving of mistakes, and laugh at themselves. In contrast, onlookers, friends, family and spectators show very little interest or concern towards the performance of this individual. The athlete does not feel the pressure of "expectations to perform" because he or she is new to the game and are still learning.

As time progresses the athlete begins to increase his or her skill and ability moving them up the triangle illustrating less forgiveness of mistakes. Friends, too, are increasing their expectations such as golfing with a foursome and missing a putt may result in "jeering, mocking or confrontation."

True competition begins where the two intersect; perhaps entering into a club tournament or a game between friends where "stakes" are on the line. Perceived room for error for the athlete is lessening and expectations to perform are increasing.

The final stage is illustrated as the athlete progresses towards less and less self forgiveness, and does not allow for personal mistakes or errors within his or her performance. Onlookers or "others" are also expecting far more at this stage. Asking questions about why certain events happened, what the athlete must have been thinking at the time, and making statements about the athlete's performance or suggesting how to improve.

In teenage development, others may be parents, coaches or friends who present these expectation dynamics. Heightened expectations send messages to the adolescent that there is no room for error and in turn the young competitor loses the ability to forgive themselves. Such a dynamic will lead to increased stress in competition, physiological reactions while playing, and a person who is developing personal attributes and coping mechanisms that are creeping into his or her everyday life. The game is no longer "fun" it has become the object by which the adolescent has, or is, defining themselves. To lose, would be to fail - to fail as an athlete at this age is to fail as a person - to fail as a person brings questions about life in and of itself. Fun has become a thing of the past, laughing is a fleeting moment. As Erikson stated, this stage is no longer about what is done to us, but rather value, importance, position and meaning in life is about what we do [how we perform]. It truly is the time by which identity or loss thereof [role confusion, who am I? who am I to others?] is being defined and shaped - a crisis. To function under the stress and growing intensity of Figure A is to move towards a point of mental collapse, emotional dysfunction and relational fall-out.

Figure B

Figure B is the adjusted diagram, one which seeks to define a healthy way of competing at any stage in life. Both figures start out the same, however, once the individual crosses the "equator of tournament competition" a psychological shift and commitment should be made.

Figure B demonstrates the important role friends, family and coaches play in aiding an individual in having a balanced outlook on his or her performance. While the triangle is definitely constructed with less room for error at the competitor's stage, it does not eliminate it entirely - nor is there a quest to do so. Athletes should seek to keep the triangle open by positive self talk and not linking one's performance with one's self-worth and value. Others play a vital role in this stage too, helping the athlete to maintain perspective, about the sport and about life. Such perspective guards against the athlete heading towards the point of break down within his or her ego state.

No sport is a sport of perfect. If one could replicate performance, competition would be redundant. To expect one's self to continually perform at one's best, with no mistakes, is to set one's self up to fail. There are too many variables in sport and performance to not realize that one will make mistakes and commit errors. Thus to perform well, an individual must be able to forgive themselves and move on. Winning is often more about who can recover the best from a mistake than it is about flawless performance. The first step in recovery is to admit one's mistake, forgive one's self and let it go.

Letting it go also lies within recognizing that there is more to life than the task at hand - or even this sport altogether. Figure A represents the fast track to defining one's self by being the best as evidenced by no errors. Figure B suggests that keeping a wide perspective to life, as aided by others, to fail in competition is not the end of the known world. Investment consultants will always advise people to diversify one's stock so that if one investment fails the others will cover the loss. Too often people define themselves by the game they play, and when success is not obtained their stock market crashes. [Unfortunately, this sometimes applies to those who fall into the "others" category as well, which is why they project so much pressure/expectation onto the athlete to begin with].

Finally, it is also a diagram that seeks to prepare athletes to be positioned well should a tragedy happen preventing them from continuing on in his or her sport. Injury, loss of position on a team [e.g. college] or age, may impact one's ability to continue on in their sport. Those who are defined by it as evidenced in Figure A have a much harder time seeing other things in life that they can contribute to. Figure B assists in helping athletes see the importance of keeping options open in how much psychological investment that making in defining themselves by their performance.


Performance perfection is an admirable goal and one which keeps athletes training and applying themselves to the sport they love. However, many athletes run the risk of being defined by his or her sport, or feeling that they need to perform at a certain level to contribute to this thing called life. Many young athletes feel the need to win, or be the best, for the perceived payoff in creating identity - being noticed and being valued by parents, friends and spectators. Yet, such efforts also run the risk of being enmeshed with the adventure of competing, resulting in the losing of self and the development of a high strung monster or washed up recluse. While we each gain great satisfaction from the games we play, let us seek to not lose focus on the reason we began playing in the first place - remember when we used to laugh?

Hardner, A. (2002) The Developmental Stages of Erik Erikson. Retrieved January 23, 2007 from

Swing Solutions, 2007

Todd Monger, MA, LPC, NCC currently serves as the Head Golf Coach and director of the Student Success Center at North Central University, in addition to providing private consultation through Swing Solutions. Todd is the creator of the innovative Vision Instrument, a tool that visually assists athletes in identifying why they are not psychologically performing at his or her desired capacity. Originally from Australia, Todd is an excellent communicator who currently resides in Minneapolis, MN. He may be reached by email at (Javascript required for email link)

Article Source: Todd Monger

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