Putting All Their Ego Into One Basket
The emotional drive to succeed at a sport can create a single-mindedness that can lead to lifestyle problems in relationships, self-identity, and retirement. It can be dangerous for athletes to put all their eggs in one basket, says sports researcher Dan Landers. That can be dangerous off the field. You can lose focus about what life’s about, so narrow in your thinking that your life is a failure if you don’t win. Sometimes athletes need to take a break.
Former Olympic gold medallist Janet Evans admitted that late in her career she took defeats hard because her identity was wrapped up in her winning in the pool. I was known as ‘Janet, the Olympic Swimmer.’ I lost my identity. Swimming became my identity. It was the way I was accepted. It became my entire life. And when I failed in the pool, I felt like a failure as a person. Swimming ate me up inside, she said. After winning in the Seoul Olympics, Evans didn’t repeat at Barcelona, and she started to believe that people didn’t like her as much. I’d been trying to live up to my past and it was impossible, she said. I was so into setting world records that I wasn’t used to finishing second or third. I thought my life was going to be ruined.
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Obsessive drive can cause problems in an athlete’s family and social life, said 10-time Great Britain Grand Prix champion Stirling Moss. The real competitor is not easy to live with when he is on his way up and when he is at the top because he is driven to compete with everyone, Moss said. He wants to do everything better, he wants to dominate everyone around him his friends, his associates, his employers, his wife. This is the deepest need in his nature and allowance must be made for it. It has made him what he is: without it, we would never have heard of him. Moss competed well enough in a 14-year career that he won 194 of the 466 races he entered. Looking back at his Hall of Fame basketball career, guard Bob Cousy said he regretted that he couldn’t turn off his killer instinct off the court.
The killer instinct brought me success as a player, but it also tempted me to run over people, to break the rules, and neglect my family to a point. I was on the edge of physical and emotional breakdown . I’m no longer proud of killer instinct. It can kill the moral sense, happiness. It is not an instinct I can get rid of. It is something I must live with as best I can.
When you’re playing, you always have to be ‘on,’ whether ifs practicing or playing games, says former NFL linebacker Marlin McKeever, divorced from his wife. If you’re not ‘on’ when there’s a problem in the home, it tends to get magnified.
On the playing fields and in the arenas, elite athletes rise above others because they often become monomaniacal and make their profession their whole life, says clinical psychologist Selwyn Liderman. They often times are mostly nonfunctional unless they are in complete control. If their boyfriend or wife or husband can accept that, it can work okay; otherwise, they are generally not good socially. They’re only comfortable doing their own thing. They don’t develop their full personal lives. There’s more examples now of domestic violence and drug abuse among athletes and more verbal violence and so much sexual activity. When athletes are deified like they are today, it brings out grandiosity. When people are put into a special position, it’s hard not to be seduced by people telling you how great you are. Some become greedy. When they get depressed, many athletes quickly get back into their sports routine and that’s their saving grace, Liderman says. Michael Jordan has said that when he retires, he expects to sit back and become fat. My thought is unless he finds some other area that can be of strong interest to him, he is potentially setting himself up for trouble.
Ted Turner admits that his unhealthy drive to achieve carried him through the America’s Cup yacht championship, then to founding CNN and the Goodwill Games and owning two professional sports teams. But he added that it ruined his relationships and personal life and, after seeing six psychotherapists, he’s given up racing and forces himself to have noncompetitive hobbies like fishing. I’m finally finding some peace, he said.
It’s not easy for an elite athlete to turn off the competitive mode in other areas of life, says sociologist Monika Schloder. She found that she couldn’t turn off her obsessive drive after her competing days were done. Schloder believes this neurotically intense drive can also cause physical problems. I developed stress and then lymphatic cancer, she said. Researchers need to address this problem among sports’ high achievers. (Schloder eventually found help through psychotherapy).