Every coach knows that a successful athlete must possess a combination of the right parents (genetics), a willingness to work hard, and the intelligence to follow expert instructions yet be able to make decisions independently.
In addition, although every experienced coach has seen countless athletes with genetic talent, only a small percentage of these athletes will ever come close to achieving their athletic potential.
Athletes must be very highly motivated in order to win. Training involves time, physical and mental concentration, pain, organization and often, giving up other pursuits.
So what is it that differentiates the recreational athlete from the serious athlete? More pertinently, what is it that separates the serious athlete from the best athlete? Obviously, genetics plays a large role, because even the hardest training program and enormous motivation can’t produce a world champion if the physical characteristics required to excel in the sport aren’t there.
Yet in any group of elite and sub-elite athletes, all of whom are genetically gifted, some will usually be winners while others will rarely win. And I’ll suggest that the latter group doesn’t care as much about winning as the former group.
There is a dark side to the winner’s personality. By this, I’m not talking about people with questionable morality. I’m not talking about cheating in sports by taking drugs, playing rough or breaking rules. I’m saying that winners possess an intense drive to be the best—to win—and I call it the dark side because it is partly the result of psychological characteristics or needs that are not necessarily admirable.
Our culture generally admires winners. Top athletes are among our best-known and most popular heroes. This is understandable, because sports make good entertainment. Human beings are visual creatures, and sports are a highly visual form of entertainment where we get to observe the fittest, most beautiful and most powerful bodies on the planet. In addition, if we are watching a sport that we participate in ourselves, we have some appreciation of the skill, speed and power that elite athletes display.
But back to the dark side. First, I want to add some caveats. My experience of elite sport is limited to running, and even within that sport, I have a better understanding of distance runners than of sprinters, though I have known and observed many sprinters as well. Nor am I saying that every winner has any or all of the personality characteristics I’m about to discuss. I’m merely writing from my own self-knowledge and from my friendships and experiences with many elite runners.
Why do some people have such a compelling desire to win? I’ll throw out all my “dark side” answers.
Winners derive great satisfaction from being the best. There may be primitive aggressive instincts left over from our evolutionary past when life or death or reproduction depended on physical skill, speed and power. Isn’t there something ape-like in the traditional winner’s pose, arms upstretched in triumph?
This aggressive instinct is not what I’d call a “nice” personality characteristic. Although I’m not at all an aggressive person physically (a good thing, considering my puny size), I’ve experienced the way a competitive situation can bring my aggressive instincts to the surface. There is a wonderful sensation of power that happens when you know you are unbeatable. When I was at my best as a 10K runner, in the ’80s, I could stand on the starting line of a Canadian road race and know that no other woman in the crowd could beat me. Maybe you think I’m arrogant for writing this, but I’m trying to be honest in communicating that I loved that feeling. Also, I believe it made me run better. I could sense the fear that my competitors were feeling as they looked at me on that starting line. I’m not saying my confidence is an admirable quality; I’m saying my love of that sensation of power is part of what drove me to train my guts out.
Projecting total confidence in a competitive situation (even if it is partially faked) is one way to “psyche out” some of the other competitors. Some athletes really are mean, and can’t be friends with their competitors. In distance running, however, I’ve experienced a close rapport with fellow competitors who were often teammates on Canadian cross-country or track teams. The ideal is to be ruthless, never nice, to your competitors while you’re in the race, but friendly and supportive afterwards. In my experience, Canadian women have always done this remarkably well. I remember so many years of racing at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria at the cross-country trials. We were all racing to be in the top six, to be selected to the Canadian Team for the World Cross-Country Championships. Many of us wanted more than that: we wanted to be the best, the Canadian champion. But after the race was over, the six of us who were selected for the team became best buddies when we travelled together and competed for Canada.
It may not be obvious, but I think some winners have underlying feelings of insecurity that are dispelled by proving they can excel in something, especially in the sports arena where succeeds leads to recognition, medals and possibly media exposure and financial rewards.
Unless we are close friends with an athlete, we are probably not aware of insecurities that underlie their need to succeed in sport. It could be problems in their family background; it could be social insecurities; it could be academic underachievement—all these things as well as other factors could leave a person feeling insecure or even severely damaged psychologically. Sometimes running can be a good way of coping with psychological pain, good in the sense that it brings positive feedback, contact with enthusiastic and healthy people, a sense of achievement and health benefits. Other ways of compensating for insecurity or psychological problems exist—such as misusing alcohol or other drugs, compulsive sexual behaviour or other risky behaviours—but these are usually problematic coping mechanisms.
Even though running can be considered a “positive” addiction, I still believe that using running to compensate for deficiencies or insecurities in other areas of one’s life can become obsessive. Obsession, too, can be a dark side of the winner’s personality. I’ve known several female runners who became anorexic in their quest to become faster. Some of them ruined their bodies permanently. I remember a year when one of these women won race after race on the American circuit, setting several course records, but she only lasted that one year. Many runners become so addicted to their sport that they won’t stop when they’re injured, and slight injuries turn into severe or permanent injuries. It’s a fine edge elite runners balance on, between being on the peak and crashing into the abyss. I’ve been on that edge a few times. Sometimes I was wise, recognized my precarious position in time and backed away from the edge. Other times, I kept pushing, and paid for it with an intractable injury.
Winners are driven by the desire for perfection. Running is a simple sport to quantify. In running, perfection isn’t a multi-faceted, subjective thing the way it is in some sports like gymnastics or figure skating. The only criteria for winning is getting to the finish line first. Improvements are always measurable. The movement towards perfection means achieving new personal best times. Eventually that leads to winning, either in a little pond or a big one, depending on the athlete’s inborn talent.
Running satisfies the psychological needs of a perfectionist because improvements are easy to measure. With good coaching, dedication to training and successful avoidance of injury, improvement will happen, predictably. Hard work is rewarded, and an athlete may have more control over his running results than any other aspect of his life.
The obsessive-compulsive side of some elite athletes is manifested in various ways. I’m not too bad in this regard, though I have mild symptoms. For example, I always run with a stopwatch and time absolutely everything. Then there is the matter of those 31 training diaries that I’ve recorded my workouts in every day since 1979. But I’m not as obsessive as runners who train with a Garmin and have to complete their run when the watch displays an exact distance, such as 10.00 km. I’ve never felt compelled to run a certain number of miles per week, or to complete an extended running streak without missing a day. Nor do I count calories—ever.*
*Oops—I just remembered that the summer before the 1988 Olympics, I made the supreme sacrifice of switching from regular Coke to Diet Coke. I’ve always hated the taste of Diet Coke, but the heat that summer in Toronto was intense, and my craving for Coke’s sweetness and carbonation after a hard workout was insatiable. How could I have settled for less than the real thing? Obsessed.
What do you think, athletes and coaches—do you recognize any of these “dark side” personality characteristics?