Elite Athlete Performance And Super-Achievers In Sport – Is The Essential Ingredient For Success An Inner Mongrel Or Unrequited Child Rather Than Purely Physical Capacity

Above my desk at home is a picture of my great University friend, Philip Lloyd, and I in our paddling days many years ago completing a race, shortly before he switched to mountain climbing, a sport where he achieved great success and pioneered a number of astonishingly difficult routes in a very short space of time before tragically falling to his death when a safety rope failed on a high mountain in Patagonia. Each year I enjoy watching the Tour De France and I am awed by the cyclist’s capacity to sustain pain for so long in the high mountain stages, and their capacity to train for huge amounts of time on a daily basis to ensure they get to the race in peak condition. This week I read about the extent of doping in sport, and wondered not only how they appeared to have gotten away for it for so long, but how so many athletes could have and do take drugs when there is so much evidence how potentially harmful performance enhancing drugs can be to the body of those that take them. All of these got me thinking about why people push themselves to such limits to win races, and what ‘separates’ these race winners and super-achievers in sport, including those that in order to win become dope takers, not only from their less successful peers, but the vast majority of the human population to whom cycling a few kilometres would be regarded as a big effort and achievement, and who would probably prefer to have a cup of coffee while reading a newspaper as their activity of preference.

It is clearly necessary for folk who are successful in sport to have the ‘right’ physical characteristics in order to be able to compete at the highest level, be it the right body shape for their chosen sport, or a big lung capacity, or great muscular strength, or good balance or agility. But you can have all of these, and yet if one doesn’t have the required amount of ‘will’ to push one’s body, no matter how specially ‘designed’ it is, to train for hours on a daily basis or to push oneself to near collapse during a race itself, one will never be a ‘winner’ during athletic events. Where this ‘will’ comes from, and how it is stimulated to be maintained in the face of extreme hardship, is still not clearly understood or determined. One of the biggest ‘wow’ moments of my science career was when after doing competitive sport for many years, and studying as an academic how sport was regulated for many years after that, I realized after spending thousands of hours reading about drive and motivation theories that performing sport is an essentially abnormal activity / thing to do. That might sound strange, but this ‘wow’ moment was underpinned by the knowledge that our bodies and brain have very well defined protective mechanisms, both physically and psychologically, that protect us from damage and resist any effort to get out of our ‘comfort zones’. In the physical sciences these processes are called homeostatic mechanisms, and in psychology they are described as being part of the ‘constancy principle’. Homeostasis was defined by Claude Bernard in the 1860’s as the tendency to maintain the body in a state of relative equilibrium well away from the limits of the body’s absolute capacity using protective physiological mechanisms. The constancy principle was developed by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900’s as an offshoot of his ‘pleasure principle’ theory and central to the principle is the concept that the human being is a biological organism which strives to maintain its level of ‘excitation’ at an always ‘comfortable’ level. To achieve this goal, Freud suggested that humans avoid or seek to diminish any external stimuli which are likely to prove excessive or which will threaten our internal state of equilibrium, using mechanisms in either the conscious or subconscious mind. So when we get up and exercise, which increases our body’s metabolic rate tremendously, and mentally requires effort, we are doing something that is essentially ‘anti-homeostatic’, and which would naturally initiate a number of mechanisms designed to make us resist the desire to continue exercising, or even stop completely. The symptom of fatigue would be an obvious example of one such protective mechanism which would be an overt part of or result of either physical homeostatic or psychological constancy mechanisms.

So why do folk do sport then if there are all these protective mechanisms. A possible reason may be ‘higher order’ homeostatic / constancy mechanisms, such as material or social rewards which may result from participating in sport, which are beneficial for the long term future of the individual and are ‘valenced’ as being more ‘important’ than the short term risk of being out of one’s safety ‘zone’ when doing sport. For example, being fitter would perhaps be thought to make one more desirable for a potential mate from a biological offspring choice perspective, or if one won a race this would lead to financial gain which would again one more socially desirable, and thereby enhance the reproductive capacity of the individual participating in sport because of the perceived increased ‘esteem’ associated with being a winner. This is a very biological theory for sport and race participation, and suggests that doing sport, racing and winning are beneficial from a Darwinian perspective, and involving oneself in such events would be part of some deep-rooted ‘propagation of species’ biological drive or motive.

The problem with this biological theory is that it does not explain why people push themselves to the level of collapse in sport or why folk continue competing either with warning signs of impending physical catastrophe such as angina (chest pain associated with heart disease), or take drugs in order to improve their chances of success, or become dependent on / addicted to sport (there are numerous examples of this and it is an increasing psychopathological problem), all of which would potentially damage rather than enhance one’s future life prospects and therefore also one’s reproductive capacity, so perhaps something ‘deeper’ is involved. Albert Adler, around the time that Freud proposed the constancy theory, put forward his theory of the inferiority complex, which suggested that performing great feats were related to a sense of inferiority related to prior issues, and that one competes or performs events as a mechanism of ‘hiding’ internal perceived inadequacies or short-comings of the self after previous negative experiences (being bullied in one’s youth, or teased about physical weakness in adolescence, for example). Freud suggested that damaging events in one’s youth lead to a state of ‘ego-fragility’, where in in order to ‘block out’ painful experiences from one’s past, one ‘represses’ these damaging memories or experiences and one ‘projects’ or externalises these internal conflicts into external drives or desires which are ‘transferred’ onto something or some action that can ‘compensate’ for these early formative related issues. Therefore, for example if one feels one is the cause of one’s parent’s divorce, to compensate one spends the rest of one’s life winning races or doing well at work in order to try and ‘make up’ for the ‘damage’ one perceives one has caused at some deep subconscious level, even if one is not the cause of it, and one does not even consciously realize that one is doing something for this ‘deep’ reason. Symptoms and signs of projection and transference include fanatical attachment to projects and goals, envy and dislike for other folk who are successful or receive awards, and falling apart when failing to complete a challenge successfully – all of which are endemic and part of the ‘make-up’ of the sporting world.

If this sounds ‘odd’, or far-fetched, there are some interesting data and information that can be gleaned from athlete autobiographies and academic studies that would suggest that this theory may have a degree of veracity. Dave Collins and Aine Macnamara wrote a very interesting review a few years ago in which they suggested that ‘talent needs trauma’, and described data that would support this concept. For example, academy football players who eventually made it to become elite football players apparently have a greater number of siblings (more competition for parent’s attention) and a three times higher parental divorce rate than peers who did not reach elite level activity. They also suggested that successful footballers come from backgrounds with a higher incidence of single parent families, while rowers commonly reported an increased level of early childhood departure to boarding school (which Collins and Macnamara, rightly in my mind, suggested would be a ‘natural source of early trauma’). Looking at successful cyclists, information gleaned from their autobiographies or articles written about them describe that for example Lance Armstrong parents split up not long after he was born and he grew up with as step-father he didn’t like, Bradley Wiggins’s parents similarly split up when he was young, as did Mark Cavendish’s, and Chris Froome’s parents also separated when he was young. If all this described family history for these cycling champions, footballers and rowers is indeed true, it would be supportive of Collin’s and Macnamara’s suggestion, and that perhaps some of these athletes drive to succeed (and in Armstrong’s case to the level where he was willing to take drugs to do so) is related to some inner drive created by their challenging conditions in their youth (though of course it can be said that growing up in a divorced family environment may often be more easier than doing so in a marriage where there is continuous conflict between parents, or stifling living conditions), or is a compensation for it.

As I said earlier, us scientist folk are still not completely sure what makes an elite athlete, or why some folk push themselves to extreme levels of physical activity. My friend Phil Lloyd was interesting to me as he had such potential in all aspects of his life (and was such a great person and friend), yet he seemed to have some inner ‘edge’ that made him always restless and always want to go ‘higher’ or ‘do more’ and never seemed completely satisfied with what he had achieved – like a lot of us when we were young, there was always a more dangerous river to paddle down than the one we had just got out of, or a higher mountain that needed to be climbed. While I surely had my own demons in my youth, I remember asking Phil why he climbed these very and increasingly dangerous routes he was doing before he died. He gave several reasons, but one which always stuck with me was that when he was solo climbing ‘up there’ miles away from help and people, it felt a bit like when he was young and at boarding school as a child, and it helped him work through these memories. I did not understand his answer then, and thought he was perhaps joking with this answer, but after a career in science and reading basic psychology texts for many years, his answer eventually made sense to me (and perhaps was the ‘seed’ that led me to write this particular article). There are incredible rewards for those who achieve great success in sport. Those who do well / attain the pinnacle of success in any sport deserve our utmost admiration for what they put themselves through during races and on a daily basis when training. But perhaps there is an element that all this effort, which takes them (and me in my youth) far out of their own ‘constancy’ / homeostatic zones, is in effect in part potentially a compensation for trauma of times past which creates an ‘inner mongrel’ which refuses to give up until the ‘prize’ is won that will ‘make up’ for that past loss or trauma. In a way by doing so, perhaps (and hopefully) all these folk by winning enough will gradually attenuate the ‘unrequited child’ which may still reside in them, and reach psychological ‘peace’, and wake up one morning and choose to go and have a cup of coffee in a warm shop rather than ride a bike or kick a football for six hours in the pouring rain, and be happy and be able to feel relaxed when doing so. There is a huge energy cost and price involved over many years if indeed winning anything is related to an inner mongrel that won’t ‘keep quiet’ – and in the case of my great friend Phil, his drive to succeed in his chosen sport perhaps in part led to his death, and we never got the chance to see him reach his full potential, which he possessed in such abundance in all aspects of his work, social and sporting life, and each day I work at home I see the picture of us paddling together and feel a sadness for this lack. Equally though, if there was no inner mongrel and / or unrequited child, would there ever be winners, and would the high mountains of the world ever have been climbed? I’ll ponder that question more later today when I head off with the family to the coffee shop for our weekly Sunday coffee and newspaper routine!


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

3 responses to “Elite Athlete Performance And Super-Achievers In Sport – Is The Essential Ingredient For Success An Inner Mongrel Or Unrequited Child Rather Than Purely Physical Capacity

  • Laurie Rauch

    I like that ‘The inner mongrel’ – sounds much nicer than the usual labeling of such behaviours as ‘sensation seeking’ or ‘conduct disorder’. I know you will agree, Zig that it equally applies to super achievers in all fields not just in sport. We are all out their climbing our respective mountains. I easily relate to Phillip spending all that time in the mountains as I equally spent a lot of time on my bicycle. My accident was not fatal, leaving me to pick up all the broken pieces afterwards and still in the process of putting them back together again.

    • Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

      Great comments Laurie – I agree with you, one could write similarly about folk in most non-sporting pursuits and the work environment. You were brilliant before your accident, and are brilliant afterwards / now in a different way – the drive to succeed perhaps replaced by a calmer creative wisdom which allows you to be so insightful in your work life as you are always! (-

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