Ego Playbook: Know the limits of self-criticism – it’s not always about you

July 19, 2021


by George Perry

We often talk about ego management as taking the bad with the good, owning the L’s along with the W’s. But high-performance personalities sometimes self-criticize at the expense of overlooking easily fixable deficits external to them.

Rafael Nadal is one the most successful tennis players of all times, having won (so far) 86 singles titles, including 20 Grand Slams - of which, 13 were in the French Open.

Toni Nadal is Rafael’s uncle, and trained Rafael from his earliest years in tennis. Toni understands Rafael’s mentality and professional journey better than anyone. Toni opened up about Rafael's incredible mindset in a 2018 presentation.

Rafael always showed an extreme motivation to become the best, driven by a very high level of self-confidence. When Carlos Moya, at the time the best Spanish player of all time, asked Toni if he would be happy for Rafael (then 15 years old), to follow the same path as Moya or Albert Costa - who just won the French Open - Rafael cut them off immediately. He would not sign on for that at all. He would do way better than both of them, of course!

Toni explains that the largest part of his job with his nephew ended up not being on the court, but about forging a good character and managing Rafael's internal drive. With all of Rafael’s success and ambition, he could potentially develop a mutated ego – one that would be counterproductive to his career and detrimental to his well-being.

Toni was very demanding in the attitude and comportment Rafael brought to the court. He taught Rafael humility, responsibility and the need to accept and own his actions. He taught him how to self-critique, and to never seek excuses and justifications. No one has ever won a tournament – or gone very far in any aspect of life – with excuses and justifications.

One day, an adolescent Rafael was playing very poorly, spraying balls all over the court and losing 5-0 against a lower-ranked player. Toni came closer to the court and immediately realized that Rafael’s racquet was broken. Why didn't Rafael realize that and simply change racquets?

Rafael responded: “I am so used to thinking that I am responsible for my errors, that I didn’t even think that it could be the racquet!”

Where some players would react to their own poor play by smashing a perfectly good racquet, Rafael Nadal didn't even think to attribute his play to a broken racquet. Thanks to Toni's mentorship, Rafael Nadal owns his failures as much as his successes. And that's part of why there are so few of the former and so many, many more of the latter.

On the other hand, though, we need to ensure that our self-criticism doesn’t blind us to faults that lie outside of us. A healthy ego is one that clearly perceives, recognizes and acts on reality. Evading things that are outside of us – like a broken racquet! - can be just as dangerous as evading those things that are inside. In Rafael’s case, the external factor was something easily under his control: go to his kit bag and get a new racquet. Had he persisted with the broken racquet, he would have continued dropping winnable games and sets.

EGOal: Give a full, honest, 360-degree accounting of yourself

If you are unsparing when you recognize that something is your fault, hold others (or the tools of your profession, like a racquet) to that same standard. If you take ownership of your weaknesses and defeats, take equal ownership of your strengths and successes. Look within and without equally when attributing blame or credit, and then take action to the fullest extent you can.

Only when you own the full range of outcomes can you dial in the proper amount of ego for any situation.

Photo credit: Yann Caradec / Flickr, under CC BY-SA 2.0.