The strive for perfection can be a defensive reaction, an overcompensation for low self-esteem.
Clinical psychologist Robert Grant agrees that some athletes can limit their dysfunctional thinking to parts of a match. They may have enough personal stability to have their egos wounded or tarnished only during their performances and they may even make that work for them, Grant said. But for many athletes, Grant added, weak links in their identity often show up away from the playing fields in the form of addictions or domestic violence. Yet elite athletes can attain good mental health and still be productive professionally by seeking therapy, he said. They need somebody to help them sort out the wounds and emotional injuries they’ve suffered. If they did, they’d be a lot more balanced and stable and could achieve higher performance longer in their careers.
Some athletes seem to thrive professionally with their insecurities and unresolved issues and their coaches often keep them in this on the edge state because they believe it is good for business, Grant said. If anything, the athlete may get help from a sport psychologist for performance only while their deeper mental and emotional disorders are left untreated.
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Grant said that a good comparison for his argument is the careers of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, known as the Bash Brothers when they were swatting home runs for the Oakland A’s. Both had problems off the field, especially Canseco, who had numerous domestic disputes and arrests. Canseco was a better player early in their careers, but he never got [clinical] help and he dropped from superstar status, but McGwire did, and look at his career now, Grant said.
For years McGwire kept his feelings and his problems bottled up; his self-doubt, fluctuating self-esteem, his claustrophobia, his hitting slumps, and relationship difficulties. I was all closed in, McGwire recalled. I didn’t like myself. I wasn’t a very secure person. I could never face the truth. I always ran away from it. It’s like sometimes I look back at myself in those days and think,Who the f was I?Following the 1991 season, in which he hit a pitiful .201 for the Oakland A’s, McGwire drove from Oakland to his home in Los Angeles. I was at a crossroads in my life. I remember driving home. I knew I had five hours by myself to think. I didn’t turn the radio on. When he got to his house, McGwire called the A’s employee assistance program and they set him up with a psychotherapist. The next season, his home run total jumped from 22 to 42, and he continued to flourish while seeing the therapist over the next four years. It took failure for me to understand myself, he said. I’m not afraid to talk about therapy. [Other players] tell me they’ll never go to therapy. That’s bull. Hey, everybody needs therapy. It brought so many things to my life. I can face the music now. I can face the truth. (Those quotes came prior to the 1998 season, when everything came together for McGwire his confidence and his willingness to face the truth, the pressure and the failure and he smashed a record-setting 70 homers.
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