Professional athletes are some of the few people in the world who are allowed to have all the ego they can want, earn and wield. Not many other lines of work could get away with some of the ego moments we see in sports. But then again, not many other lines of work give everybody an easy read on if that ego is deserved. “The chops to back it up,” as we like to say.
Pro athletes put on display the full spectrum of ego. And, despite the bad reputation and negative connotations that go along with that word, we’ve learned some of our most important lessons from the athletes we’ve worked with or observed over the years.
You don’t need to share a training ground or team bus with some players to learn some useful lessons about the relationship between achievement, identity and action.
Those old enough can’t have forgotten Gabriel Batistuta, the Argentinian soccer player, remembered as one of the best strikers of his generation.
After beginning his career in Argentina and playing for River Plate and Boca Juniors where he won titles, he played most of his club football with Fiorentina in Italy. He is their all-time top scorer in Serie A with 152 goals. He became an icon in Florence. The Fiorentina fans erected a life-size bronze statue of him in 1996, in recognition of his performances for the club.
Despite winning the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana with the club in 1996, he never won the Italian league with La Viola.
In a 2019 TED talk, he explains how having a healthy ego and staying grounded has been central throughout his career. This was particularly the case when he moved to Roma in 2000 for €36 million, then the highest fee ever paid for a player over the age of 30.
After his signing, Roma management and then-head coach Fabio Capello offered him the team captain role and the No. 9 shirt.
For our readers who haven’t found their way into soccer yet, the jerseys with numbers 1-11 traditionally go to the senior starters in the squad. Certain numbers carry special meaning and gravitas: No. 1 is almost invariably the goalkeeper, No. 10 is the creative playmaker and No. 9 is the star striker, the player who will rack up the goals and the applause.
While he was obviously flattered by such honours, and while most players would have accepted these gratifications, he remembered that he signed with AS Roma in order to win Serie A, not chase more fame and attention. He turned both offers down to let Francesco Totti remain the captain and Vincenzo Montella keep the No. 9. Montella had been top scorer in both the club and the league the previous year.
This helped Batistuta earn his new teammates’ trust. They already knew his record and his football abilities. But by not accepting – at his new teammates’ expense - these outward tokens of status, he was able to integrate himself into a team that already had a positive dynamic and was moving in the right direction.
In that first season, Batistuta started 28 games and led the team with 20 goals, en route to the Serie A title that crowned his career in Italy. All while wearing the No. 18.
If Batistuta had prioritized the prestige of being “Roma’s No. 9,” he could have derailed his own ambitions as well as the club’s. Batistuta “played for the team” because there was no daylight between the team’s goal and his goal: Win Serie A.
Whatever gratification a player may get out of wearing a single-digit jersey, it can’t compare to lifting the league champion’s trophy overhead.