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Check Your Ego at the Door
By Lainy Carslaw

Remember when you were the young coach who thought you knew everything? And now, there are younger coaches working under you who think they know everything, who think they can do it better? This cycle is common in gymnastics schools but there is a way to get out of this pattern—keep ego out of the gym.

This is easier said than done. In athletics, ego can serve an important purpose. It helps us feel good about ourselves. It tells us we’re the best. And as coaches who want to teach winning athletes, we have to tell ourselves that we’re really good at what we do. In decision making, especially at the high levels, there is little room for error or self-doubt. So, wouldn’t getting rid of ego be a bad thing, you ask? The short answer is no. Confidence and arrogance are not the same thing. While confidence is inspiring, arrogance pushes people away. As much good as ego does, it usually does twice as much harm.

Ego is like a shield protecting us from criticism and judgment, which can also make us think we are above the need for self-improvement or self-reflection. Ego tells us we are perfect instead of believing that we are all imperfect beings in need of continuous growth, education, and practice. It keeps us from continuously evolving into our best selves. And it keeps us going down that lonely road of “my way or the highway.”

Ego can also blind us to the talents of others. Ego is stubborn, unwilling to change, and unwilling to listen. It tells us we don’t need to work with others or to listen, and in that way, ego can be very destructive. In short, ego is a liar.

You do need collaboration. You can’t do everything yourself. And in this life, we not only need relationships, they make life and work more enjoyable.

If you have always done everything on your own, it can be hard to give up control but at some point, if you want to grow, if you want to thrive as a team and a business, you are going to have to. It can be hard to know where to start, but here’s a good place:
  1. DELEGATE - learn to find a few key staff or parents that you trust. Give them tasks and trust them to do them. Do not micromanage them and give them the space and respect to get the job done. They might not have done things your way or perfectly but you may learn that it was enough and now you can move on to the next set of tasks.
  2. TRAIN - start training the next wave of coaches. Allow them to shadow you, work with you, and ask them for feedback. And most importantly, let them make their own mistakes so they can learn from them. Remember, we are all in a different stage on the learning curve.
  3. LISTEN - Ego tells us that everything is about us. But that is rarely true. If we listen to our customers and our staff, many of the things they are trying to tell us are about their own desires or their own issues. If we could learn to listen, we can help solve problems and help fulfill goals in a way that makes it about them, not about us.
  4. SHOW, DON’T TELL! If you work hard, put the extra time in, and produce great results, your staff will respect you and see you for the great leader you are and you will not have to tell them. You will not have to shove your accomplishments down their throat, they will speak for themselves.
Here are a few last thoughts about ego:
  • While the ego gets exhausted by the constant need for praise, philosopher, Gordana Biernat reminds us, “The more you know yourself, the less approval from others you need.” It’s nice to be affirmed but when we know we are giving our best, it becomes less and less necessary.
  • While ego feels threaten by others, our mindful self will grow to appreciate and affirm others.
  • Setting ego aside can lighten ourselves of the heavy burden of always having to be right. When we work together, we succeed and fail together. The responsibility doesn’t lie within one individual.
  • When we make a mistake, we can start to understand that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Where ego tells us not to apologize, a mindful self knows there is no shame in saying I’m sorry.
  • Remember, ego can be a positive tool when we need to motivate ourselves to be brave enough to take that first step or to find self-confidence during stressful times but for the most part, it needs to be kept in check so we can stay connected with others and grounded with ourselves.
  • It takes a great leader to show others the way toward the spot light, it takes a great person to be gracious enough to share it.
Lainy Carslaw is an essayist, fiction writer, and gymnastics coach who lives in the North Hills of Pittsburgh with her husband and three sons. She has been coaching full time and helping run the Pittsburgh Northstars Gymnastics team for the last twenty of its fifty years in existence. She holds an MFA from Chatham University, a poetry degree from the University of Pittsburgh and is the author of Unexpected Light: essays on gymnastics, motherhood, writing, and never giving up.