Does high performance go hand-in-hand with having a difficult personality? Seriously, think about all the famous names you’ve heard about, people who have incredible talents and abilities… and messy personal lives.
I’m making a mental list of my favorite writers, musicians, artists, etc. Jimi Hendrix, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, Amy Winehouse, Eugene O’Neill, etc. These are people with unimaginable creative capabilities, and they all have brutal track records in their private lives. Substance abuse, emotional disturbances, trainwreck relationships, and the list goes on.
How about athletes? Plenty of candidates in this department too. Lawrence Taylor, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Tiger Woods, Tonya Harding. All great champions… with sketchy backgrounds.
Obviously, the names I’ve just listed are people with famously large transgressions. In many cases, their names are known almost as much for their screw-ups as their accomplishments. So let’s agree that most athletes don’t cross the line into this upper level of misbehavior. There are millions of sportspeople in the world, and the majority of us don’t have mugshots on record with the local police department.
However, let’s find a different way to personalize this. You’re all athletes, right? And as we just said, most of you probably don’t have the kind of personal baggage that qualifies as front-page-of-the-newspaper material.
Are you difficult to deal with? Sometimes? Often? All the time?
Does your athletic drive and intensity cause some headaches now and then?
Ever had a relationship suffer because of the commitment and demands of your sport?
Do you have a hard time transforming back into a normal human being when you leave the gym?
Has the stress of competition screwed with your head enough to make you act poorly towards others?
Do you have a hard time keeping your priorities in order, because your sport can easily override everything else?
When you fail in your sport, does it ever cause you to act poorly, possibly causing friction with important people in your life?
If you answered YES to any of these, you understand what I’m talking about. The decision you made to become an athlete has changed your life. Many of those changes are obviously positive and exciting. However, we all need to just come right out and acknowledge that we’re not always easy to deal with.
Almost every coach I’ve ever known has had to ask the “Are all the good ones crazy?” question at some point. Coaches, does that sound familiar? Seriously… there are times when it seems like the really uber-talented athletes in our sport are all freaking nuts. I’ve had this conversation several times over the years, with some of the most successful coaches in our sport.
I’m not going to mention any names… but I definitely could. It wouldn’t be hard to type up a list of weightlifters (and athletes in other sports) I’ve known over the last 30 years who had the highest level of championship talent combined with brains that should be labeled “Abby Normal.” Trust me, that list would be extensive.
Is this a 100% statement? Of course not. We all know there are plenty of elite talents who are exceptionally balanced, stable personalities. They’re a blessing to work with because they deliver incredible performances with minimal headaches. However, we can easily lose sight of this fact when we’re working with the nutjobs.
And then there are the athletes who aren’t exactly nutjobs. They’re just… difficult.
I think there’s a connection between high athletic performance and personality challenges. Most of the best athletes have some (or all) of these qualities:
- Highly competitive
- Hot temper
- Risk takers
There are some ways these qualities can help in your personal life, relationships, etc. But there are also plenty of ways they can foul things up.
I mentioned Lawrence Taylor earlier. For those of you who aren’t NFL fans, Taylor was one of the greatest athletes in the history of American football. A linebacker for the New York Giants, his playing ability on the field was unlike anything anybody has ever seen. But despite his inconceivable physical skills, “LT” was probably best known for his intensity and mental toughness. He was a wild animal who could gain an edge on many opponents simply by scaring the piss out of them with his aura.
And his personal life? Don’t ask. Drug addiction, league suspensions, arrests, financial trouble, divorce, and plenty more.
Reporters and interviewers have asked Taylor about his struggles quite a bit over the years. He’s been very candid about discussing them, and he once said something I’ve always thought about:
“For me, crazy as it seems, there is a real relationship between wild, reckless abandon off the field and being that way on the field.”
In other words, he couldn’t shut off his animalistic personality when he changed out of his uniform and left the stadium every day. He didn’t have a light switch in his brain that he could just flip when it was time to go home, instantaneously transforming him into a mild mannered Husband of the Year candidate. For LT to play like LT, he had to stay in character 24/7. And he’s had to pay the price for it.
Now, let’s get back to you. Fortunately, most of you aren’t operating at the same level of recklessness and dysfunction as Lawrence Taylor. But that doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing your own complications, in some way. How about it?
Personally, I can’t really relate to any of this. Every day, I wake up in the morning and I stand in front of the mirror, thinking about myself and asking, “How could anybody not want to love this?” Most of this discussion doesn’t apply to me, because everything about my personality is as luscious as fresh donuts.
Just kidding. Listen, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always easy to handle. I’ve gotten a lot better as I’ve grown older, though. When I was in my teens and 20s… yikes. I guess I managed to get through those years without any major permanent damage to my reputation or future, but it definitely wasn’t always smooth sailing.
So I can’t offer any foolproof solutions or answers to any of this. Actually, I don’t think this article is supposed to be about solutions or answers. If you’ve got the kind of inner makeup we’re describing here, you should be grateful for it. It’ll benefit you in your athletic life, and probably many other things too. This whole conversation is about finding balance in your personality, and it’ll probably be a long-term project.
But that’s a good thing, don’t you think? You don’t have to worry about finding balance if you’re a wet noodle. You only have to worry about it if you’re a live wire, and live wires are the ones who zap some energy into the world. Not many wet noodles in the history books, last time I checked.