The Negative Impact of a Strong Work Ethic

Having a strong work ethic and setting lofty goals…would you rate these as things that are good or bad for athletes to have?

I’d imagine you’d say they’re extremely good, if not down right necessary for reaching higher levels in your sport.

But what happens when your goals or the fact that you train hard works against you?

One of the most interesting truths I’ve uncovered working as a mental performance coach is that goals, ambition, and a strong work ethic can often be a double edged sword.

They can push you to be your best, or they can be the very cause of you continually underperforming and holding yourself back.

In this article we’re going to explore how goals and a strong work ethic may be hurting you, and how you can ensure they are being used to increase your performance instead.

The Downside of Working Hard & Setting Goals

I was talking with a baseball player the other day who is dealing with a lot of sports performance anxiety and fear. He told me how he’s afraid of making mistakes, mainly because of what his teammates will think of him.

This is a very common occurrence amongst athletes I work with.

What was most interesting was the answer he gave when I asked him when this fear and anxiety started.

He said it began about two years ago…just about the same time he committed himself to baseball and really started taking it seriously. That’s when he began to train more on his own instead of simply going to the required practices.

Similarly, another athlete told me how she’d been underperforming during games as well. Hers had to do with many of the same challenges, such as fear of failure and high levels of nerves.

Once again, she’d recently stopped playing her other sports and focused solely on softball.

And this pattern has repeated itself many times, and was something I felt personally when I was in high school and college. That’s what made it stand out to me the most, I think.

It had me thinking about the downside of a strong work ethic and lofty goals. I’m using those words, but we could also use words like commitment, determination to be your best, expectations, and so on.

But I like strong work ethic and goals because that seems to be the base of this pattern that can lead to fear and anxiety.

How a Strong Work Ethic Leads to Fear & Anxiety

Here’s how the pattern works as I’ve noticed it…

  • An athlete commits to their sport and begins working extremely hard.
  • They set lofty goals they want to accomplish.
  • Now they set expectations for games.
  • They demand perfection because of the work they’ve put in and become frustrated if it’s not there. Or they feel like they need to perform well because of the work they’ve put in and others think they need to as well.

So we can say that it’s the feeling athletes often get that they need to perform perfectly each game that stems from their goals and strong work ethic that then leads to fear and sports anxiety.

The reason it leads to fear and anxiety is because your focus is fixed on the outcome.

Whether you’re worried about what other people will think or you’re worried about making sure all your training was worth it, during a game you are thinking too much about the outcome.

Then what can happen is that you aren’t thinking about the outcome in a positive way (such as thinking about you’re doing well), you’re likely thinking about not wanting to make a mistake or mess up.

But the thought of not wanting to make a mistake still has you thinking about making a mistake. This leads to fear and anxiety, both of which cause you to hold yourself back, play timidly and with a lot of tension.

That right there is how setting lofty goals and having a strong work ethic can sometimes lead to you actually underperforming during games.

Now, I am by no means advocating for you to stop caring, to stop setting goals, or to stop working hard. What I am advocating for is to stop worrying so much about the outcome and placing unreasonably high expectations on yourself simply because of the work you put in.

Using Goals & a Strong Work Ethic in a Positive Way

There’s no substitute for hard work.

However, you want to make sure you know how to then balance the hard work with a proper mindset during games. That’s what these tips will help you do.

It’s not your training or your goals that are to blame for you underperforming. As I said earlier, it’s the pressure you place on yourself to play perfectly because of the goals you’ve set and the work you’ve put in.

By following these tips, you can continue to work hard and set goals, all while combining that with high level performances during games.

Tip #1: Train to Improve, Not to Do Well in Your Next Game

This is such an interesting concept and one I talk with athletes about a lot. When you train, what is the reason you’re doing it?

Are you trying to “fix” something so you can play better next game? Or are you training to continually improve as a player?

On the surface those may seem like the same thing. But here’s the deal…training to play well in your next game drives outcome-oriented thinking.

It causes you to second guess your training and feel like what you’re doing isn’t worth it if you don’t play well.

The simplest way to say it is that training with this type of mindset leads to tension and fear.

Instead, you want to train for continual improvement. Of course you want to do well in the next game, but the work you’re doing this week (while it will help your performance) is focused on long-term growth and steady progress as a player.

When you do adopt this mindset shift, your work ethic isn’t there solely to produce results. It’s there to help you grow as a player. And it’s that growth and the continual development of your skills that leads to the success you want during games.

Tip #2: Learn to Let Go During Games

As I said earlier, one of the main ways a strong work ethic and setting high goals for yourself hurts you is because of the fear and anxiety it generates during games.

This is because you are trying to force the outcome.

Funny enough, it shows that you aren’t truly trusting in the work you’ve put in. Instead, you are second guessing yourself and may feel like even though you did train hard, it’s not good enough.

What you must learn to do is let go during games. And there are a few things you want to let go of…

  • The outcome
  • Worrying about your stats
  • What other people will think of you
  • If your training pays off
  • Whether you get benched after a mistake

Literally every possible thought or goal that has to do with the outcome you want to let go of while you’re playing. All you want to do is simply play!

Since you have a strong work ethic, you want to fall back on the training you’ve done. Game time is the moment to let go of trying to force anything. Just let it happen.

And trust me, it will happen if you let go of the outcome. I’ve seen it happen time and again. When an athlete lets go of trying to force the outcome, the outcome they want typically happens more often.

Tip #3: Be Present During Games

When it comes to worrying about your goals during games, these will likely only distract you. They’re in the future. Your performance is happening in the present. Therefore you want to be fully focused in the present moment.

Now, how do you do that?

There are two tools I like to use that help athletes stay present while competing. One is focusing on your breath and the other is using performance objectives.

When you focus on your breath this helps you be more mindful. It keeps your attention off the goals you’ve set (which tend to only distract you while playing).

What you can do is bring your attention onto your breath and focus on taking nice deep breaths. This will also have the added benefit of calming you down if you’re feeling anxious.

The other technique is setting performance objectives. These are cues you create and then focus on during the game. They can be mental cues or physical cues.

Here’s a video that goes into much more detail on how you can use performance objectives during games.

Final Thoughts

A highly sought after trait for any athlete is a strong work ethic. Couple that with lofty goals and you are laying the foundation for a successful career…most of the time.

Sometimes, however, a strong work ethic and high goals will actually hurt you during games. This occurs when they lead to fear and anxiety.

But you need to work hard and you should be setting goals.

That’s why you want to follow these three tips to ensure you’re giving yourself the best chance of succeeding during games: train to improve not to do well in the next game, learn to let go, and focus on the present while you’re competing.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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