The Soul of a Champion…Part I
Dr. Judd Biasiotto & Dr. Richard Williams
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
George Bernard Shaw
I am really a blessed human being because I have had the opportunity to travel to so many places in the world, and through those activities, I have had the chance to meet some of the most successful people in the world of amateur and professional sports. Best yet, I have had extensive life experiences that gave me the opportunity to not only meet but to develop relationships with some of the most influential athletes and people in the world. For instance, I worked as a sports psychologist with professional and amateur athletes throughout the world since the time I was 17 years old. I also worked with numerous sports teams, including the Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Cincinnati Reds. As an athlete, I had the opportunity to train at just about every Olympic training center in the world for extended periods of time. Actually, I was the first American athlete allowed to train at the Olympic training center in Beijing, China in 1988.
As a certified sports psychologist, I – like any other professional psychologist – certainly understand the complex nature of human behavior. I have conducted a prolific amount of experimental and empirical research in this area. In addition, I have a strong background in medical science, pharmacology and physiology. It goes without saying that I have life experiences that few, if any writers, in this field could challenge. In short, I know sports psychology, and I know athletes as well as anyone in the world or anywhere else for that matter. With that being said, I would like to talk to you about what it takes to be great….I mean really GREAT! In many ways, it is not always a pretty picture. Here is what I found through my experiences.
Is Greatness Possible Without Obsession?
If there is a common thread that tends to run through elite athletes, especially the “stars of stars” the greatest of the great, it is extreme obsession with their sport. In fact, obsession just might be the most critical variable required to achieve greatness. Even the most gifted individuals who achieve greatness, guys like Tiger Woods, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Eddie Coan, tend to exhibit passionate behavior toward their sport that hinges on psychosis.
Not surprising, at least to me, is the fact that the majority psychologists believe that for most people to reach an elite level in any field of endeavor some degree of obsession is required. In fact, in sports, one of the most competitive fields of endeavor, obsession, total obsession, may be the most important aspect of achieving world-class status. To be perfectly honest, I have never met a great athlete or a top-quality entrepreneur for that matter, who wasn’t somewhat obsessive. The really great athletes, the one-percenters, are generally totally obsessed with what they are doing. They place a higher priority on their sport than they do on work, family, interpersonal relationships, and even on their own health. In actual fact, many athletes seem quite willing to sacrifice the very essence of life just to achieve athletic greatness. Nothing matters, except the game.
Now, I am sure there are elite athletes who have achieved greatness without total obsession, but I would venture to say that they are the extreme exceptions rather than the rule. The majority of individuals who have reached an elite level in sports and many times in life were obsessively obsessed with what they were trying to achieve, almost to the point of being psychotic.
As a reference point, the American athlete responds to competition like no other athlete in the world. It’s been estimated that the typical athlete in America trains an average of twelve hours a week. Now, that’s the average athlete. Most elite athletes train at least three times as much. Not only that, but they will train if they are in pain, if they are sick and even if they are injured. They will do anything to improve their performance — drugs, cheating, lying. It doesn’t seem to matter as long as they improve. Believe me, there are numerous elite athletes who practically surrender their entire lives to that single purpose.
For many elite athletes, their devotion to sports actually goes beyond the border of obsession….sports is not just a game that is played at certain times, rather it is their social life, psychological life, and physical life. Think about it. How many people do you know that would push their bodies to the brink of exhaustion each and every day, abstain from social and physical pleasures — such as sex, alcohol, and social communication? How many people do you know who would sacrifice job opportunities, financial security, home, marriage, even children, perhaps ingest large quantities of illegal and dangerous drugs, ignore and endure pain from serious injuries, work long hours perfecting a simple skill that is ridiculously repetitious, and gain or lose a couple of hundred pounds each year?
It is not just elite male athletes either who tend to develop obsessive-compulsive behavior in an attempt to achieve their goals. World class female athletes are just as fixated on their sports’ goals. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find an elite female athlete in the aesthetic sports — gymnastics, diving, bodybuilding, figure skating, dancing — who isn’t preoccupied with body image and rather obsessive about her training. Amazingly, according to Leslie Beals, author of Disordered Eating Among Athletes, over 80% of elite female athletes who participate in the “thin-build sports” or activities that require a lean body weight, such as long-distance running, gymnastics, swimming, diving, figure skating, dance, bodybuilding, wrestling and lightweight rowing, have eating disorders. Worse yet, these obsessions can go far beyond the playing fields. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are psychiatric illnesses, but they often coexist with other emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression. It is obvious to me that there’s a real paradox in sports. The primary purpose of athletics is to enhance mental and physical health, yet many athletes have been brainwashed into thinking that excellence in sports is the only measure of success.
With that being said, let’s get back to our original query…. GREATNESS! Is achieving greatness so important to you that you would be will to sacrifice the majority of your life.…life is short you know. If so, my question is, “Why?” What purpose is it serving? What purpose are you serving? More importantly, what have you been sacrificing in life perhaps without realizing it in order to pursue your ostensible goals. There is no question that if we have real passion in our lives we will live longer happier and more productive lives. That basic concept relates directly to having a sense of direction, a purpose, or at very least an objective in life. Commitment and dedication are essential to achieve our goals. Time spent passionately, even if it is unproductive, is better than time spent indifferently on goals we are expected to have, but ones we have no interest in achieving. Commitment to excellence is vital for greatness…the greater your commitment, the greater your chance for greatness. Having good genetics, talent, and skill also factor in substantially.
Then there is obsession. It is a powerful, commanding weapon in an athlete’s arsenal to get things done. Nevertheless, it should be treated like a potent, but potentially addictive elixir that can help you achieve your full potential as an athlete but can also destroy your full potential as a human being.
Author’s Note: Although this article was written in first person in order to make the text more entertaining, the writing of this article was truly a cooperative task which required essentially equal contributions from each of the authors. The order of authorship does not imply or indicate a primary contribution.