October 30, 2012
|Lance Armstrong won his seventh Tour de France in 2005. (Photo by Olivier Hoslet/European Pressphoto Agency)|
Lance Armstrong was, by just about every measure, the best of the best. But, as recent news stories have reported, he was also a deeply flawed man. The recurring reports of his cruelty, lack of loyalty and compassion to friends and teammates, and his narcissism leave us uncomfortable. He is not alone: the three athletes who most depict athletic exceptionality over the past 20 years are Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Lance Armstrong. The athletic virtuosity of all three seem to reflect corresponding flaws in their personalities (Jordan’s gambling, Tiger’s infidelity, and Armstrong’s cheating). All are supreme athletes who are also, by all accounts, supreme narcissists.
One is left to wonder what kind of mental makeup it takes to achieve at such a high level: the mindset, the training, and the sustained motivation. Where is the heart of desire that fuels these men (when asked to describe Michael Jordan in one word, a teammate used the word “predator”). Armstrong provides insight through his own book, It’s Not About the Bike.
|There is an unthinking simplicity in something so hard, which is why there’s probably some truth to the idea that all world-class athletes are actually running away from something (p. 85)|
Because of their athletic accomplishments, we often make our athletes into larger-than-life figures who are, in our eyes, without flaw. Strip away those superficial layers, and Armstrong becomes a complex figure to understand: He was abandoned by his father, raised by a single mother in a poor neighborhood, bullied in school, and kicked off the high school football and swim teams. Left with a hollow identity, he used cycling as a replacement, writing “I became someone on a bicycle.” One can appreciate that to lose at cycling could transform in the mind into losing at life, and such powerful motivation to succeed create fertile ground for all sorts of psychological deficiencies.
While Armstrong demonstrates many of Freud’s classical defense mechanisms such as displacement and rationalization, if he is indeed guilty, then his denial is the most plausible. Media reports tell us that he continues to deny the allegations, but in the face of such overwhelming evidence, this denying serves as the very thing that has led to the crumbling of an empire, and an unfortunate fall from grace.
As I set about restructuring my course syllabi to remove the lessons and episodes from Armstrong’s achievements, my mind turns to the real victims of this scandal: the millions of adults and children who found inspiration in his story, the cyclists who had found an icon and the face of their sport, and most of all those hundreds of thousands of cancer patients who benefitted from not only having a teammate in Armstrong who they could be proud of, but also from the millions of dollars that have been channeled through his foundation. Money that will dry up as the integrity of its namesake continues to deteriorate.
The subtitle of It’s Not About the Bike reads, “Winner of the Tour de France, cancer survivor, husband, father, son, human being.” His medals have now been stripped, he is divorced, and his humanity is under serious scrutiny. The field of sport psychology is left to make sense of it all. The dysfunction that exists at the highest levels of sport cannot be ignored, lest the field itself suffer from the same type of denial that plagues the Armstrong’s of the world.
Over time we will learn, as we must, that independent of achievement, athletes are people. They experience the same range of emotions as you do, and the same insecurities. As for the rest of us, maybe the first lesson is that we look elsewhere for our heroes, perhaps to those everyday heroes in our inner circles whose small acts of kindness are authentic, meaningful, unendorsed, and sincere.
By Gio Valiante
Valiante is an associate professor of education who specializes in sport psychology. His research interests include motivation and beliefs, and he has conducted research in the areas of writing self-efficacy, achievement goals, and writing self-concept. He is the author of Fearless Golf: Conquering the Mental Game.