I have always been fascinated by top athletes who spend their entire lives aiming at one goal: winning. Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, and Roger Federer are examples of this elite group of people. Anyone who has ever practiced a sport knows well that an extremely rare combination of factors is required to reach—and to keep—such a level. An almost unique mix of physical characteristics, talent, and coordination is needed to excel at the highest level.

When I was a kid and I started to watch sports, I was blown away by the acts of these outstanding performers. However, I couldn’t see what was behind the athletic performance that was visible to everyone. In other words, I was not able to grasp and to appreciate the intangible, invisible element which, as I got older, I understood to be the key to success: the mental factor.

This factor, in turn, includes several aspects, the first of which is motivation. In this regard, I would like to quote a sentence that a famous tennis player, Jimmy Connors, stated:

I hate to lose more than I love to win.

It is quite easy to find other statements by successful athletes expressing a similar concept. For these individuals, I think that the gratification achieved through the victory is not related to the desire to overwhelm opponents. In other words, it seems that these outstanding athletes don’t enjoy particularly defeating their competitors. Instead, they just do not tolerate the idea that someone could be better than them. Defeat causes them a state of suffering. They want to avoid this at any cost. This concept is depicted wonderfully in the documentary, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird: A Courtship of Rivals Basketball. When they became pro players, Johnson and Bird practiced relentlessly to improve their game. Why? Because each one knew that his rival was doing the same and they both just couldn’t stand the idea of being beaten by the other.

Another extremely interesting aspect that is common to these amazing performers is the capability to enter a state of mind—often referred as “the zone“—that allows them to control their emotions and to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. As they are human beings, they experience the same difficulties as anyone else (family matters, loss of a beloved person, health problems, etc.). Nevertheless, the greatest athletes can flip a switch in their head and forget all these things during their performance. This is the case even when the pressure would be unsustainable for anybody else (by the way, this is the capability that I envy in them the most).

This obsessive, maniacal quest for victory comes at a price. To get to the top and to stay there, these athletes must devote a large part of their life to this goal. Their insatiable hunger to win—or rather, to avoid defeat—is so furious that, to achieve their objective, they are willing to sacrifice many things that the majority of people consider indispensable. It is no coincidence that one of the winningest bicycle racers of all time, Eddy Merckx, was known as “The Cannibal.” This nickname was due to the fact that he wanted to win each and every competition, even when he was supposed to let one of his wingmen win a stage of a multiple stage race. This nickname depicts forcefully the animal, primal instinct pushing these people to success. I even think this fiery desire is a component of their natural instinct for survival, in the sense that they feel victory— and, more generally, competition—as a vital element they can’t do without.

It would be interesting if this bulimic need to compete and to win were investigated from a psychological standpoint. In general, I like to think about people’s needs as empty spaces with which they are born. These empty spaces are responsible for a large part of the unhappiness and suffering we experience during our lifetime. Throughout life, one tries to fill up such voids the best he can. With regard to the iconic performers I’m talking about in this post, competition is one such space that demands to be fed constantly to make these people feel alive. Put in another way, I think this is their attempt to pursue equilibrium, as described in this previous post. Triumphal victories and shiny success are just a part of their journey, however, as there are dark sides, too. These athletes’ primary activity is so demanding in terms of physical and mental energies that it leads to unstable situations in other areas of their lives. I think that circumstances such as Tiger Woods‘s extramarital affairs or Michael Jordan’s obsession with gambling should be considered in this perspective.

As I stated before, these athletes have to pay a price and I believe they are totally aware of this. Often, they live in a permanent condition of loneliness because the people around them are put in a stressful situation (for instance, I don’t think that all Kobe Bryant’s teammates enjoyed practicing with him because of the intensity he forced on them). But these elite people are so determined that relationships and friendships are not their priority. Recently, I read the book Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable by Tim Grover, known for being Michael Jordan’s personal trainer. Grover defines elite athletes as cleaners and uses the example of MJ to describe the weight these people carry upon their shoulders, in terms of expectations, pressure, and hate.

Living and working side by side with such athletes is not easy for several reasons. In general, gaining their respect is hard. And even if you can, you won’t get any discount. They just expect you work hard as much as they do to achieve the goal. For this reason, they are able to get the best out of their team members. But the other side of the coin is that they are so demanding that they usually exhaust the rest of the team.

I am not a psychologist and I don’t know if, ultimately, obsession for victory could be read as a consequence of an inferiority complex or another form of psychological inquietude. Frankly speaking, I would not be surprised to read one day that this is true and that this obsession will be considered a disease. On the other hand, this would not be the first case in which genius and extreme behaviours coexist in the same person. And that’s just why such tormented personalities are so fascinating.



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