As the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games draw to a close, all eyes are focused on the medal tally, and the media is abuzz with inspirational stories about how athletes have triumphed over adversity to win medals. These stories are perfectly fine, except that the focus here is on the fact that they have won medals, and any challenges along the way are justified only by the outcome. Specifically, we are evaluating an athlete’s progress and abilities based entirely on their achievement of a medal.
What about the athletes who faced and overcame challenges and gave their all during the games but did not end up with any medals? Are their efforts still justifiable?
You are unlikely to hear about these athletes because we tend to shy away from them and maybe even judge them for not trying hard enough. However, there are negative consequences from ignoring these stories of athletes who have worked hard and come up short. Specifically, We are encouraging people to view achievement solely in terms of results and overlook the importance of personal development. We are possibly fostering a fixed mindset or ego-oriented approach toward achievement.
Task vs. Ego-Oriented Approach
According to the achievement goal theory (Nicholls, 1984), individuals with a task or mastery orientation are motivated to complete a task for the purpose of mastery, that is, to improve and learn, whereas those with an ego orientation are driven by the desire to demonstrate superiority over others and gain extrinsic rewards. Both orientations can lead to success, and there is often an interplay between the two at different stages of task involvement. However, these orientations prioritize different aspects and have different implications.
By highlighting only medal winners, we are presenting an incomplete and misleading narrative…
Task orientation is associated with the ‘flow’ state and resilience, while having a predominantly ego orientation is often associated with the fear of failure, performance anxiety, risks of burnout, and mental health issues (Hughes & Coakley, 1991). Consequently, people who are directed mainly by ego orientation tend to give up easily or not even bother to try in the face of challenges since they view challenges as evidence of their inadequacy. Instead of improving our potential to succeed in sports and life, an ego-dominant approach is likely to limit our progress.
Medals do not tell the whole story…
Furthermore, by highlighting only medal winners, we are presenting an incomplete and misleading narrative that disregards the varying levels of competitiveness in different sports – some athletes face numerous competitors, while some have only a few. Evidently, this affects their chances of winning a medal. There are also many talented athletes who have not come home with medals despite their best efforts. Throughout the games, I have witnessed athletes being edged out due to a crucial shift in momentum to the opposing side or an ill-timed injury. There are also other factors, such as the lack of resources and even physical, social, and cultural limitations. These are all factors that are beyond the athlete’s direct control.
While I was delighted to read about how the Cambodian 5,000m runner who persevered and gave her all to complete her race in torrential rain despite finishing last, such stories that exemplify the mastery mindset are the exception rather than the norm. We need more of these stories to challenge the prevalent ego-oriented perspective toward competition and inspire risk-taking and perseverance even though the outcome is not guaranteed! Paradoxically, by focusing solely on medals, we are undermining our potential to win unless, of course, you would prefer to pay “tourists” to compete for your country.
To the athletes and coaches who fell short of medals in the SEA games, let nobody tell you that you have left the competition “empty-handed.” No competitor leaves a battle “empty-handed.” The same hands that you use to train and to compete, to get stronger physically and mentally, are callused with strength and wisdom acquired through your pursuit of mastery. Rather than perceiving them as empty, look to your hands to guide you toward excellence in both sports and life.
Hughes, R., & Coakley, J. (1991). Positive deviance among athletes: The implications of overconformity to the sport ethic. Sociology of sport journal, 8(4), 307-325.
Nicholls, J. G. (1984). Achievement motivation: Conceptions of ability, subjective experience, task choice, and performance. Psychological Review, 91, 328-346.