Years ago, my best friend B.J. and I were talking about Olympic skeet shooting and he made an observation that taught me a lot about the psychology of competitive motivation.
“If I’m honest with myself, winning has always been about self-validation and ego for me” he said. “If I won a match, I felt like my position in our sport would be elevated. I don’t win anything anymore, so my mindset has changed, but that self-validation was once a driving force.
“When I speak to the top competitors, it’s clear that their motivation to be the best at what they do isn’t ego driven like it was for me. They simply love the process and the spirit of competition. I find it fascinating to see what drives people.”
The goals we set for ourselves have a powerful impact, so we should ask why. We usually have one of two motivators: performance or mastery.
Performance goals, also called “ego” goals center around winning. We feel awesome when we kick the other guy’s butt. Ego goals are about being better than everyone else and proving competence. With mastery goals we participate with the goal of getting better and literally developing a sense of mastery over the task. While it’s normal to favor one method over the other, the two goal types differ. It’s possible to do well in one and poor in another, or either high in both or low in both.
It’s normal to favor short-term solutions, so we think of ourselves as having adequate ability, and we disregard feedback. Interest is maintained only as we succeed. This is hardly helpful in contributing to driver development, yet it’s all too common. It’s very important to realize, just because you’re getting faster, doesn’t mean you’re getting it right.
Racers driven by a performance motivation, experience higher levels of anxiety, and possess a stronger fear of failure, seeing failures as a bad thing, rather than a learning opportunity. They also believe ability is paramount and they are at risk of dropping out if they don’t show improvement often.
On the other hand, drivers with a mastery goal are more likely to have positive practice and competition strategies and they’re more likely to process coaching and training instructions more effectively. It’s these drivers who experience greater levels of accomplishment at the track and they measure their performance against themselves rather than others. Drivers with this mindset will persist despite setbacks and tend to believe that effort is an important contributor to success.
When we look at how performance versus mastery goals relate to outcomes on the track, we see that ego-oriented drivers tend to experience more negative responses and less adaptive perspectives related to their involvement in their sport. Performance goals relate to stronger aggression, which causes some drivers believe they’re awesome, but the reality is it isn’t appreciated or respected by other drivers. Placing a focus on meeting ego goals, drivers become concerned with proving themselves through performance. Self-esteem in drivers is less stable. On the other hand, drivers with mastery goals relate to better sportsmanship.
Not all drivers are ego-driven, though many are. Don’t just listen to today’s successful drivers. Hear what they say. You’ll hear them as students of the sport, lifelong learners of racing. Their focus is on process, technique, and mastery. These goals see them measuring themselves in different ways that ultimately lead to superior results.
What B.J. and I loved about competition most wasn’t the winning. It was learning and analyzing that made us better athletes. Learning will simply make you a better driver.