18 July 2019

How To Leverage And Optimise Ego In Your Team

Instinctively, we all know that theoretical tactics and repeat training only go so far: with both eyes fixed on the finish line and their opponent’s every move, athletes need a more primal motivator to kick in – and that is ego.

Satya Nadella put his finger on what had gone wrong at Microsoft: the frustration of a workforce that was losing and was no longer considered cool © AP

However, a quick walk over from the sports stadium to any nearby business centre would reveal a slightly different story.

For modern enterprise, ‘testosterone targets’ and outrageous progress PowerPoints might be tolerated in an intense sales environment – but this quickly attracts a stern stare from upper management when it comes to executing core strategy: modern projects need a modern mindset that is calm and objective; this makes ego seem archaic, and something that can get in the way.

But performing on the sports field requires a different ingredient.

Unlike Bill Gates strategising the next breakthrough joint venture, Ronaldo’s winning touch-down requires raw intuition, and in real-time: this might be the culmination of hours of practice and prior training – but also from the self-confidence that enables him to switch into the primal mode and deliver.

However, as teams prepare for major events such as this week’s ICC world cup, many sports organisations are seeking a model that lies somewhere in-between: this might mean leveraging the natural benefits of ego on the run-up to the big day – but then also emulating some of the corporate leadership practices designed to remove unproductive behaviours.



The idea of ‘managing’ ego does and should imply removing certain negative behaviours right off the bat.

But this is where sports leaders can make a fatal mistake: just as ego might be treated as something to tolerate within a business environment, some sports coaches wrongly see ego as ‘something to accept and deal with’ – and even imagine that a perfect team would train better and more objectively without it.

However, according to one of the humblest of sports leaders, Roger Federer, this paradigm of thinking might be holding many teams back:

Yes, an off-pitch mindset should be a humble and learning one; but an on-pitch mindset does not have time for thinking – your mind needs ‘motivation fuel’, and self-confidence is what gives you the final push.
— Roger Federer, 2015

But in addition to fuelling this ‘on-pitch mindset’, recent studies indicate that a healthy dose of self-confidence can also lead to better-organised group activities: for a sports team preparing for the next big game, this boost in self-confidence creates a subconscious target among all team members – and this, in turn, leads to more intense training sessions, despite the small trade-off in objectivity (Emre, 2015).



Without doubt, failing to recognise ego-like behaviours as a boost to training intensity may be a costly mistake – but allowing toxic behaviours to go unchecked could be the recipe that brings your team down on the big day.

As French footballer Zidane would point out, every athlete has his reckoning: being suspended by a major football league for physically headbutting a team player might be the soundbite that makes the headline – but the footballer would be the first to point out that this was a culmination of many unchecked behaviours that could have managed better to begin with.

However, although un-managed behaviours may surface as fatal failures during the actual game, one study at the University of Birmingham suggests that inadequate management of confidence-related behaviours can undermine the natural benefits of self-confidence during the training period: these traits handicap team member communication, and create a ‘domino chain reaction effect’ that undermines judgement; productive self-reflection; and the moral functioning between members of different skill-levels (Ntoumanis, 2015).

Ultimately, this highlights that existing ego management methodologies may be yet to strike a productive balance between the benefits and natural blind-spot that can arise from a ‘confidence-driven’ team culture – but this may also point towards a lack of in-person leadership that naturally ‘tunes’ team members away from unproductive behaviours before they have a chance to escalate.

Nikos Ntoumanis, 2015: adapted from the 2003 model.


In this week’s article, we explored some of the natural benefits and negative side-effects of highly-confident behaviours within a sports environment.

On the one hand, we see how imposing a corporate approach to training and goal setting may be undermining healthy behaviours and mindsets that subconsciously maximise training efficiency. However, we also see how un-managed ego and toxic behaviours can become socially unproductive – and therefore undermine the natural training benefits core confidence is designed to create.

If you are a sports coach or team leader, consider implementing the following leadership strategies to maximise the performance of your team executing your principles on the big day – but also to create productive training and team harmony during the months your team prepare:

  • In addition to how your existing sessions are structured pedagogically, consider how: 1) extracurricular activities may amplify self-confident behaviours among your team members; 2) how this increased confidence may encourage your team members to collaborate naturally and set natural group targets; and 3) how the social capital introduced through extracurricular events could enable your team to self-organise during training sessions more efficiently.

  • Building on this modified event structure, which now standardises more casual extracurricular events, consider which negative and anti-social behaviours may be easier to monitor in an environment that is more relaxed. For example, you may discover that one of your highly-confident and seemingly motivating team members are undermining the productivity of your peers: this enables you to address toxic behaviours before they escalate – but also ensure that highly-confident personalities can remain ‘in-place’ to set healthy performance standards for members that require that extra push.

  • As a sports team leader, consider how these one-time changes compare to your instinctive reactions and day-to-day behaviours: this may be easier to ignore when the activities and principles of your team are well-organised on the surface – but this may be forgotten in high-stress scenarios, and your leadership profile may be the only reference point that is left when your team members are executing in-game.

    Ultimately, this step (though arguably the most important) is the one tactic no sports coach can ever systematise: leadership behaviour must be innate, and this demands a commitment to emulating the subtle balance of behaviours and leadership traits that enable the best teams to perform.

    If you as a reader happen to be a sports coach or aspiring team leader, one step you could take is to check your eligibility for an invite-only Conqa Group event: We cannot actually directly sell our events as some applicants are occasionally rejected (check our criteria here); but the best way to think of our events is as the ‘ultimate software download’ for any existing leader who would like to absorb the best leadership methodologies from across all industries – and then apply these principles to achieve a close-to-immediate upgrade in their team performance.