Focused or self-obsessed?

I remember when I was in my early twenties and fully focused on pursuing my sporting career, my sister said to me “You’re not a very nice person any more”. 

I was momentarily shocked. In my mind, I was simply and clearly focused on doing all that I could to qualify for the Australian canoe slalom team and then successfully race overseas.  To me this was self-evidently a good thing to do and I assumed that anyone who knew me would surely be entirely supportive, adaptable and tolerant of my actions. I had never really considered the impact my endeavours might have on anyone else.  With all the arrogance of youth I quickly discounted her feedback and maintained my focus on canoeing.

It was only later, when I moved on to coach young athletes and learned a bit more about psychology that I fully realized what was going on.  High level, sustained success in sport requires certain traits like intense focus, aggression, commitment, self-belief and even obsession.  These attitudes are all to do with achieving mastery over oneself, the sport and one’s competitors. Admirable as they may be in competitive sport, in daily life they are more typical of a sociopath.  These characteristics are the opposite of being caring, empathic, nurturing and kind – which psychologically are all to do with sympathy.  Mastery and sympathy are two important motivations that we need to be able to access appropriately so that our state of mind, emotions and goals are aligned with the context.  Playing rugby in the sympathy state is a recipe for disaster, just as is trying to be a loving parent while in the mastery state.

The press has recently been reporting on golfer Rory McIlroy’s travails on and off the golf course (, and I wonder to what extent this psychological balancing trick is relevant to him?  Just being a top class golfer is hard enough, requiring a stunning combination of technical skill and mental toughness.  Mastery is clearly the main motivational drive. But throw in the demands of sponsors and a relationship and it becomes much more complex, requiring a player to be able to quickly adapt and change their mindset to different situations.

Moving appropriately between mastery and sympathy is a skill that needs to be actively developed. Few athletes, especially those in young adulthood, find it natural or easy. It’s the same for business leaders, who find that the motivational demands vary widely between work and home life.  As a sport psychologist and executive coach, it’s one of the things I teach my clients to do.  The best performers have learned how to switch on their mastery motivation, to bring a relentless energy to achieving their goals. Paradoxically, they have also learned how and when to switch it off, so they can sustain themselves and the important relationships in their lives.

How do you manage this in your performance domain?