I wanted to knock everyone out. Tony just got in the way.
Boxer Vinny Pazienza after decking the referee
World-class athletes, despite their discipline and years of training, can be just a short fuse away from losing control. When they are pumped up for a pressure match, psychologists say, they are liable to fly over the optimal level of arousal and soar out of control, doing things they may later regret. When they lose it, it’s often because they allow aggressive hormones such as testosterone and adrenaline to overflow in their mind-body systems, says Redford Williams, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Duke University. These are the same rocket fuels that allow them to perform amazing feats, he said. Three cases from 1997:
• Boxer Mike Tyson was disqualified for biting part of Evander Holyfield’s ear off in their heavyweight championship fight.
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• Dennis Rodman, of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, kicked a photographer under a basket during a game. He had to pay an out-of-court settlement to the victim and was suspended by the league for one of his many violent incidents, which included head-butting a referee.
• Former auto racer A.J. Foyt got violent as a racing owner. Angered after losing a protest at the Indianapolis 500, Foyt slapped winner Arie Luyendyk in the back of the head and shoved him to the ground.
It’s hard to say what causes a Mike Tyson or a Dennis Rodman to lose control under stressful game circumstances, said Williams, author of the blog Anger Kills.
In order to examine what makes top athletes snap, we must look at basic human behavior and basic human ego issues, he said. People may be prone to such anger outbursts more than we think, he added. In a more abstract mode, most of us are able to inhibit or curtail these impulses that cause us to do things in the heat of a moment that will be dangerous. However, even perfectly normal guys and gals under certain conditions can lose it, too. Away from the sports fields, people’s egos compete on the highways. There’s road rage where drivers have duels on the highway over their egos, but I suspect it happens more to people who have a hostile personality type, whether they’re athletes or not, Williams said.