Tom Tutko believes there are healthy and unhealthy inner drives. When a young person sees it being modeled in his or her family, when the father or mother is striving to be the best they can be and constantly taking on challenges, that’s healthy, he said.
If parents promote that, it can provide a positive start for an athlete. But there is a neurotic drive coming from a feeling of inadequacy where a person feels he has to prove he’s worthwhile. His competition comes from clobbering others and not from enjoyment of the game. It becomes an unhealthy neurosis.
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Figure- skating champion Elvis Stojko, considered a healthy competitor by many coaches and psychologists, says trophies and gold medals are not his ultimate goal, but rather he strives to see how much he can improve his performance, how far he can push his limits and physical capabilities. Everyone gets caught up in (the pursuit of Olympic gold) because of the glamour and everything, but internally no one can see or get a feeling for what it feels like inside to produce what you want to produce beyond the medal, beyond winning, and how gratifying it is, Stojko said. Only the athlete knows. That’s what keeps you alive. That’s what keep you hungry.
But clinical psychologist and sports author Robert W. Grant believes motivations such as seeing how much an athlete can improve his performance or playing for the love of the game are way down on the list of many elite athletes. No one in real life dedicates himself to a game just for the fun of it, Grant said. Motivators such as fun are not strong enough to push and sustain athletes through the painful gauntlet that must be run to reach the top. Such a path is fraught with tension, anxiety, and continual pressure to stay in shape on top. For these individuals, almost all areas of life must be structured around training. If people are in it for fun, they are either extraordinarily gifted, independently wealthy, or just plain crazy.
Instead, Grant adds, athletes are driven by psychological needs deeper than what is obvious to themselves and others:
All elite athletes are driven by issues of identity . They have literally trapped themselves in their sport. The more of their lives and self-esteem they put into it, the harder it is to let go . Athletic supremacy is a gateway to life’s riches on and off the court. Success usually brings a great deal of material from which one can create and repair a damaged ego or enhance an already stable and strong identity.