In part one of this post, we looked at how and why some athletes fulfill their potential and others don’t. Through this process we identified the main mechanism that limits success. Secondary gain.
In this post we will explore the three unconscious emotions (fear, guilt and shame) that drive secondary gain and cause doubt in athletes. We will also learn how each can influence outcomes and ultimately success in sport.
Fear, Feedback and the Fixed Mindset
‘When you’re through learning you’re through’ – John Wooden
He has worldwide fame and recognition. He even had a Hollywood movie made about him, he has become a genuine star in the world of sport.
But not for the reasons many thought he would be.
Beane was the New York Mets first round draft pick in the 1980 Major League Baseball Draft. At nineteen, recruiters thought he already had enough ability to be a champion, so they encouraged him to skip college and nominate for the draft.
Beane began his career in the minor leagues like most rookies, though he did not progress as many expected. His inconsistency and inability to deal with adversity was the source of much confusion and frustration for Mets staff and fans.
Beane seemed to be emotionally incapable of dealing with any form of failure, whenever he struck out he would throw wild tantrums, sulk and struggle to regain his composure in subsequent plays.
After being traded several times and spending much of his professional career in the minor leagues, Beane quit to become a scout and later famously turned the game on its head by pioneering the use of data science in recruiting.
Anger often masks fear. In Billy Beanes case, it was a fear of failure.
Fear of failure is common in sport. Many athletes are able to harness fear and some even credit it as the driver of their success. But for others like Beane, fear is a prison that slowly eats away at self-confidence and ultimately costs them their careers.
The difference between those who flourish and those who perish comes down to how they relate to the concept of ability. That is, how they identify with their own ability and the idea of success.
When athletes grow up being praised for their results, they feel special. However, it also causes them to believe that because not everyone can win, not everyone is special. Only those who win and succeed are special, others simply lack talent.
Stanford researcher Carol Dweck refers to this outlook as a ‘fixed mindset’. Her research shows the belief that talent is innate and cannot really be developed, can be crippling for athletes labelled as ‘talented’ in their formative years.
When a child is praised for their results, they don’t think; ‘wow look at that they love me’, they think; ‘wow they really like me to do well, I better make sure I always do well or else they might not like me as much’.
Because they associate success with approval, kids begin to associate failure with its opposite. This leads them to actively avoid putting themselves in situations wherein failure is a possibility.
The athlete with a fixed mindset who reaches the elite level is not unlike the multi millionaire usually treated like royalty, who suddenly is told to wait in line at the five star Michelin restaurant.
No longer are they the big fish in a small pond.
Forced to confront the fact that talent is not, and will not be the defining factor in their success and achievement, they must learn to adapt and evolve their ideas about themselves, their ‘talent’ and the components required for success.
Athletes who believe talent and ability can be learned and acquired get to work in order to succeed, whereas those who believe these qualities are innate become paralysed by fear of failure.
The question that creates doubt and causes the fear of failure for the athlete with a fixed mindset is: ‘who am I if not a success?’ The athlete who fears failure is overly identified with what or how they do, as opposed to who they are.
This fear of failure creates a secondary gain, which can manifest in many different ways. Most commonly, the athlete fearing failure will struggle with behaviour problems toward their sport, teammates and coaches.
Anger and intolerance in response to failure usually masks this fear, and often this anger is often projected onto others, particularly when it comes to coaches, friends and family.
Conflict often arises when others look to offer support and advice. Since the athlete believes advice and assistance is only relevant to those who lack ‘talent’, they often misinterpret cues as criticism or even character assassination.
Indifference or aloofness is used an emotional shield by the athlete who believes failing to try, prevents failure itself. These athletes often withdraw from pressure situations, and refuse to practice or play with purpose and passion.
Each of these behaviours is a defence mechanism driven by a fear of failure and designed to prevent athletes from having to deal with its occurrence. They are effective, though they also limit performance and damage crucial relationships.
Not all athletes who struggle with secondary gain fear failure. Some actually fear success. But the underlying emotion here is not the fear itself, but guilt.
Guilt, The Nemesis Of Greatness
‘In a family of thieves, the one who doesn’t steal feels guilty’ Bert Hellinger
The ESPN documentary ‘The best that never was’ details the story of one of the most talented athletes in high school football. Dupree scored the most touchdowns ever, and was the biggest and fastest running back of his era.
Four thousand people showed up to watch his last high school game.
Dupree was a mild mannered giant who knew he was good at football, and viewed it as his way to improve the lives of others. His brother Reggie suffered cerebral palsy and according to those who knew Marcus, Reggie’s condition disturbed him deeply.
Whenever he scored a touchdown, Marcus would look to the stands and acknowledge his brother. Friends often thought he felt guilty he was given superhuman physical abilities, while his brother suffered a debilitating physical condition.
Dupree’s college football career started with a bang but ended up in bitter dispute with his coaches and the national collegiate athletics association after he transferred schools and was suspended from competing for almost two seasons.
Every time it looked like Marcus might succeed, somehow things worked out for the worst. He first enrolled at Oklahoma University, which was a strong team before he arrived, however became invincible when Marcus was at his best.
After a rift developed between Marcus and the team coach, he left OU and enrolled at University of Southern Mississippi. Then the NCAA suspended him from competing for the remainder of the season as well as the next.
That next year OU won the national championship.
Fearing his window to capitalise on his talent would close, Marcus nominated to be drafted into the fledgling United States Football League, He was such a precious talent that the league changed its recruiting rules to allow him to be drafted.
From the start of his professional career in the USFL with the New Orleans Breakers he dealt with nagging injuries, which eventually put an end to his first season. In the first game of his second season, his career ended with a badly broken leg.
In the ESPN documentary, friends talk about how Dupree often spoke about the feeling that his career would end because of injury. And he on the day he suffered his broken leg, he predicted this would occur and expressed a deep anxiety about playing.
He later returned for to professional football for a short time, but he was not the same athlete he had been and never reached the heights many had predicted. Today he lives in his hometown of Philadelphia Mississippi and works several jobs.
It is easy to attribute stories like Marcus Dupree’s to ‘bad luck’, though I would content that scenarios like this occur more than we realise. Throughout my career I have seen enough ‘hard luck’ stories to know that sometimes it is more than random.
We rarely hear about the guy who never made it in sport, probably because it doesn’t fit societies narrative. People prefer to see sport as a symbol for possibility, ambition and hope. Not frustration, despair, and suffering. Thus coverage reflects this.
So when is bad luck not back luck?
When circumstances are repetitive or additive. In Marcus’ case, despite his superior ability, support and commitment from family, friends, colleges, teammates, and most coaches his career staggered from one crisis to the next.
In order to understand what causes repeated cases of ‘bad luck’, It is important to consider what people stand to gain from its occurrence. In Marcus’ case, he often retreated home in the event of a crisis, and ultimately that’s where he finished up.
At the heart of the problem for athletes like Marcus is the concept of ecology and the feeling of belonging. Humans have evolved to be social creatures, and for the greater majority of people belonging is first experienced in the family home.
As children, we adopt the beliefs of our parents. As we grow up, we face a struggle to make our own way in the world while staying true to these beliefs in an effort to remain loyal.
Any experience which contradicts the beliefs we adopted can cause us to feel guilty, and out of rapport with our family. This feeling of isolation is for some people unbearable, and causes them to withdraw from situations that cause this.
To understand ecology, imagine how it might feel if you won twenty million dollars in the lottery. You bought a new house, new boat, new car, then you drove your shiny new car to your parents house for a good old fashioned family dinner.
If you grew up in a wealthy family this would probably not be an issue, but if you grew up in a poor family with beliefs like ‘rich people are greedy’, all of a sudden sitting down to dinner would feel more than a little awkward.
For some athletes like Marcus Dupree, success can trigger a feeling of guilt, which can lead to a feeling of isolation, which is interpreted by the body as danger. So, in an effort to remain safe, some athletes will unconsciously limit success.
There are many ways this can occur, though one of the most common is injury. Of course this doesn’t mean every injury is caused by secondary gain, and for some it might even sound absurd, but consider the root of the word injury.
The word injury comes from two words inner and jury.
It literally means inner judgement.
Couple this with the fact that pain centres in the brain are closely associated with emotion centres. Entire fields of research are devoted to understanding how the brain impacts the body. Summary: mind and body are integrally linked.
The question which causes doubt, and can create secondary gain for athletes like Marcus Dupree is, is ‘will success isolate me from those I love?’ If there is uncertainty surrounding this question, then success is associated with danger.
One of the easiest ways to avoid success, yet not lose the approval of coaches and teammates is to suffer an injury. It is important to remember that this is not a conscious decision, and again not every injury is caused by secondary gain.
But whether they realise it or not, for some athletes, injury serves a purpose.
As we have seen, athletes can limit or suppress their ability and success in a variety of ways, fear can lead to the underperforming athlete who is often untrainable, guilt can lead to injury.
But what about those athletes who let themselves down and cost themselves their careers through their decisions and actions. Those who break the rules, cheat the system and eventually get caught.
This question brings us to our last brilliance blocker; shame.
Shame, Self-Censorship and Stifled success
‘We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually who are you not to be?’ Marianne Williamson
Jones had always been an outstanding athlete; taking up competitive sports as an outlet for her grief at the death of her father when she was fifteen.
From a young age it seemed she was destined for superstardom. She dominated California high school athletics, competing at high levels in both basketball and track and field.
By the time she made history at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, winning three gold and two bronze medals she had already won three world championship medals in track and field. The world was at her feet.
Fast-forward to 2008 and Jones found herself in prison. She was sentenced to six months jail time after denying she took performance enhancing drugs while under oath.
On her day of reckoning, Jones proclaimed; ‘with a great amount of shame, I stand here before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust, and you have the right to be angry with me. I have let my country down and I have let myself down’.
On the same day she admitted her wrongdoings to the world, she quit track and field, never to compete again. She felt she had disgraced the sport she loved and no longer deserved to compete.
After being released from prison, Jones later took up professional basketball, signing with the Tulsa Shock in the WNBA, though her career was not long lived. She played for just over a year before her career was again over.
Social scientist Brene Brown explains the difference between guilt and shame by pointing out that guilt is centred on ones actions (I did a bad thing), whereas shame is centred on oneself (I am a bad person).
Athletes who deal with shame doubt they are ‘good’ enough to succeed. The question that drives the doubt and creates secondary gain, which sabotages their success, is: am ‘I worthy of success?’
Importantly, this question of worth is not centred around ability or talent, but deservedness. Actually many who doubt their worth use a brash, outspoken, extroverted personality to mask the real truth. Which is Doubt.
When a person doubts their very worth, this can cause them to attract or be attracted to people who seek to build them up, and affirm them. Because of their profile, athletes can be vulnerable to people who’s intentions aren’t always pure.
Later speaking about her career and misdemeanours Jones explained: ‘you make good choices when you surround yourself with good people, and you make bad choices when you surround yourself with bad people’.
It is widely accepted that people are very much influenced by those they surround themselves with. A popular aphorism is ‘we are the average of the five people whom we spend the most time with’.
Just before the 2000 Olympics Jones first husband CJ Hunter, tested positive to banned substances, and was later banned. Four years later, 100m sprinter Tim Montgomery (father of Jones first child) was also banned for using drugs.
Clearly Marian Jones kept some dubious company.
But the question remains, if she was already the fastest woman in the world (she already had three world championship medals) prior to the Sydney Olympics, why would she feel the need to cheat?
According to our shame expert Brene Brown, one of the main symptoms people express when dealing with shame is perfectionism. For athletes, perfectionism can drive the want to succeed at any cost.
When shame drives perfectionism, ambition becomes obsession and combined with the negative influences of others, it becomes clearer as to how and why talented athletes can resort to antisocial behaviour such as cheating.
Summing Up & Moving Forward
By exploring why and how some athletes can never seem to get out of their own way, we have learned how to recognise athletes who struggle with secondary gain:
- The bad tempered, uncoachable ‘natural’ athlete is likely afraid of failure.
- The often injured, unlucky or misunderstood athlete with ‘talent’ usually feels guilty for any measure of success.
- The brazen, outspoken athlete with ‘ability’, who breaks the rules, often feels unworthy of achieving their goals.
Each of the above mechanisms of secondary gain has one central component; the (false) belief that success and safety are mutually exclusive. That is, the feeling that one cannot have both.
Recognising a problem is the first step toward addressing it. If we can begin to better understand the underlying factors that block ability and cause athletes to limit themselves, then we can better help inconsistent athletes improve their performance and reach their potential.
That for me, is what its all about.