How Star Athletes Pursue Self Destructive Paths and Jeopardize Their Careers

August 2005
University of Nebraska Press
ISBN 0-8032-4445-0

Order from University of Nebraska Press


Sports heroes frequently develop unrealistic views of themselves that are encouraged and reinforced when an adoring world treats them as elite.  For many players a sense of specialness if central to their identity, strongly influencing their expectations from the world and their treatment of others.  Although they may be giants at athletes, many sports stars have trouble relinquishing this image in daily life.  Their personal interactions are often colored by this inflated view of themselves.  It requires great emotional maturity to maintain relationships based on equality and reciprocity when you are surrounded by people eager to anticipate your every need.

Many star athletes have been catered to since childhood and have come to accept special treatment as their due.  Celebrity status can be intoxicating, and as athletes come to believe in their press clippings, they feed off the constant attention and acclaim bestowed on them.  The roar of the fans becomes necessary to their survival--a form of emotional oxygen.  Pumped up by such affirmation and applause, they feel like royalty, and they often exist in an unreal sports heaven.  When you are among the high-flying adored, your view of the world becomes blurred.  Off the field, some act as if they are above the rules of society; hubris and an attitude of entitlement ("I can do whatever I want") become central to the psyche of many athletes.  They may deny that they are vulnerable to reprisals and feel omnipotent and grandiose as well as entitled.

Our earliest image of ourselves is shaped by our caretakers.  When parents respond lovingly to them, children gradually internalize a picture of themselves as lovable.  Thus, how we think about ourselves is a product of cues we absorb from the world around us...

Sports stars learn about conditional love early in life.  A premium is placed on their physical performance, and their value becomes measured by what they produce rather than by who they are.  They learn that in order to receive approval and love, they must constantly live up to their potential.  Conditional love, based on someone else's expectations of how you to be, is different from unconditional love, in which you are loved for yourself.

The downside of being placed on a pedestal is the stress of maintaining outstanding athletic performance.  As you breathe the rarefied atmosphere, there is also the constant pressure of living in a fishbowl.  The life of the sports hero entails not only basking in the limelight but also dealing with pressures:  The pressure of being durable over the long season.  The pressure of living up to expectations.  The pressure of performing at a consistently high level.  The pressure of bouncing back from the inevitable slumps.  The strain of dealing with management, the media, and the fans.  The strain of having your private life meticulously examined.  Expectations are never lowered, and any lapse may be magnified by the press...

As a result of their inflated definition of themselves, encouraged by public acclaim, many sports heroes come to live in a world of unreality and foster the illusion that they will be treated as special forever and that these glorious days, this heaven on earth, will not be gone anytime soon.  They deny the reality that for the vast majority, professional athletes' careers last only a few years.  Of course their stars will always shine brightly, their fame will escalate, and nobody will say no to them.  Only a few seem to glimpse how they might someday fall from the pedestal.  Like the typical adolescent, they are present oriented, navigating their world with an invincible swagger and they cannot fathom a time of decline and morality...

Being a gifted athlete does not exempt a person from mental health problems.  Stardom is often accompanied by stress that creates or exacerbates psychological disturbances.  Moreover, the distorted self-image that many athletes acquire can lead to serious lapses in judgment off the field, sometimes with dire consequences.  The Rae Carruth murder case, the Denny McLain drug and racketeering conviction, and the Pete Rose gambling scandal stand out as examples.  Most athletes find it extremely difficult to accept mental illness.  Depress, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and paranoia, to name a few syndromes, carry a stigma.  Elite athletes are programmed to be strong and in control.

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