About Humility and Optimal Results…

on October 1, 2021 • Grace

Everyone knows the trope of the swaggering athlete. I’m sure you can summon him right now: In his letterman jacket he strolls the hallways of American cinematic history and into the collective Western psyche as an archetype of brawny, unthinking, narcissistic physical capability. 

But rarely is this character the hero of the story. That is because what he stands for is too black and white–too us-versus-them, too winner-take-all. He’s too brash, he’s overconfident, and he’s kind of an asshole. He’s disembodied inasmuch as he is only a body, no heart, no mind. As impressive as he may be on the football field, you probably don’t want to spend any time with him after the game.

In a 2014 journal article, philosopher Michael W. Austin challenges the assumptions behind the dominant “Martial/Commercial Model” of sport, where the match stands in for a battle and the athletes act as warriors. He argues instead that humility is the basis of the best sportsmanship. In Austin’s argument, humility comes from two sources: proper self-assessment and a self-lowering other-centeredness.The first of these means that true humility comes from a fair appraisal of yourself, where you examine your flaws and strengths and report back honestly about what you do well and what could use further work. The other element of this, the self-lowering other-centeredness,  doesn’t mean that you degrade yourself (as that would negate the honest self-assessment), but rather that you remain aware of the needs of those around you and seek to do good by them. 

This definition of humility, Austin says, does not mean that you shouldn’t engage competitively. It means that when you compete, you do so with a genuine desire that everyone involved will be pushed to their best performance by the competition. This is how the two elements of humility–the first, self-focussed, and the second, group-focussed–come into play and encourage optimal sportsmanship. He says humility counteracts the “self-deception” of ego and pride.

While it’s true that confidence boosts performance, ego deceives. If we go back to Austin’s first quality necessary for humility, honest self-assessment, we can see how confidence stems from that: when we are aware of our strengths and weaknesses, we recognise our worth and move through the world assured of that worth. 

Ego is different: it is divorced from honest self-assessment and operates solely from selfishness and arrogance. Ego is why no one likes the jock in teen movies. It is a type of delusion that keeps people from learning, as those led by ego assume they know best, can do no wrong, and refuse to engage with any feedback that tells them otherwise. If you think of it that way, it becomes obvious why an ego-centric perspective will be bad for most athletes: you need to be able to absorb, process and respond to new information in a rapidly changing situation in order to succeed. Ego can cost teams wins if even one player, blinkered by ego, refuses to act in favour of the greater good. For individuals, it can hinder growth. It destroys relationships and wrecks lots of careers

It’s one thing to hype yourself up before an event that requires optimal performance; it’s another thing to live entirely in a headspace where there is room for nobody but yourself. For optimal performance in all areas of your life, drop the ego and embrace humility. 

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