In sports, as in trading, performance often begins as an ego-driven activity. The boxer is all about knockouts; the basketball player focuses on scoring; the golfer looks to ace each hole. The novice trader wants to make money, and so trades, trades, and overtrades. This ego focus is not entirely negative; it’s a big part of the initial attraction to the performance arena. But it is not enough. When we perform out of ego motivations our personal needs overwhelm the requirements of each performance situation.

More predictive of success is a passion for markets themselves–and especially the passion to understand what is going on in markets. When we prioritize understanding, the focus shifts from ourselves to what is happening in front of us. Sometimes not much is happening. Good trading in those situations can mean not trading. Mike Bellafiore recently made this point when describing the development of a trader who developed rules for when to not trade. Discipline–rule following–takes the place of ego: it’s not about trading, but about trading successfully.

Across performance activities, we can see that disciplined performance is a necessary phase of development. The basketball or football player learns to follow a game plan, not just do what they feel like doing. The poker player learns to fold when the cards aren’t right. It’s common for developing psychologists to learn their craft from manuals that are research-validated and that give them a game plan for helping people with various problems. Discipline is all about sublimating the ego to sound rules and principles.

Later phases of development find that disciplined rule-following turns into positive habit patterns. Calling the right plays, making the right moves, becomes second nature. Through repetition, the rules are internalized. Discipline is no longer needed to do the right thing. In this later phase of expertise, we see professionals able to read unique situations and make conscious decisions to veer from rules or modify them to the situation. Instead of following the therapy manual, a sensitive therapist may reach out to a distraught client and offer support. Instead of backing off trading in the afternoon hours, the index trader recognizes that relative volume has picked up and finds a great place to go short when buyers can’t retrace much of the morning’s losses. A football quarterback learns when to call an audible; a poker player learns when to bluff.

That is what professionalism is all about: Having so much experience that you not only follow good rules and processes, but you know how to adapt to unique situations as they present themselves. It takes discipline to become a good trader; it takes expertise to know when to veer from that discipline. It’s all about putting our own needs on a back burner and becoming ever more sensitive to what we are trading.