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Childhood Defense Mechanisms

Is it possible that the way Carl Lewis reacted to his Olympic opponents may have been related to the way he was treated by his siblings in their intense rivalry as children in North Carolina? Is it possible that Michael Jordan’s reaction to NBA opponents and threats late in playoff games may be related to the way he felt he was treated when he was cut from his high school team, or the way he was treated in a rough series against the Detroit Pistons early in his NBA career?

No matter how good some athletes get, they carry their early-life insecurities with them, said Stanley Titelbaum, PhD, who counsels

Track and field star Carl Lewis, who went from worst in his family to best in the world.

Baseball, football, and basketball players in New York City. They still feel insecure or they only feel as good as their last game, he said. They need validation from the media or the fans. But like after having a good meal, they get hungry again tomorrow. There’s not always a strong correlation about how they do on the floor and how they feel about themselves. It’s a need they have to keep bolstering their sense of OKness.

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We all have mental and emotional as well as physical traits, from childhood that are maladaptive, immature, and downright silly, said former gymnast and college professor Dan Millman. In most people, these traits remain hidden from their own awareness, only to surface momentarily in times of upset, pressure or crisis. Not being aware of motives, which typically have a long developmental history, is the primary reason athletes choke not only in actual competition, but also in the choice of team and coach and, most specifically, in the design of training routines, said Robert W. Grant.

Maurice Vanderpol, MD, a retired psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist, calls these childhood defense mechanisms. Becoming a superachiever in sports, or any other field, is often a way that a child deals with a problem situation, he said. It serves a purpose of not only achieving, but also gives the child a safe haven or defense mechanism. They have a resource (such as athletic skill) to defend themselves with. It makes them feel safe and respected. In problem homes, there is often guilt that an athlete takes on subconsciously, Vanderpol said, and the super achieving helps to channel that. It allows them to keep their guilt in manageable quantity. These childhood defense mechanisms are often subconscious, he added. When we find ourselves in unusually stressful situations, we often react in ways we never would have believed. We carry these things from childhood with us without realizing it . The whole idea of protective mechanisms and resiliency of survivors is fairly new. We’re just starting to understand them.

And yet athletes may become conscious of what drives them. Amy Van Dyken had asthma and a self-esteem problem in high school. Fellow students teased her and called her a nerd. I was six-feet tall. I towered over the crowd, and I think that’s why people picked on me, she said. She was such a poor swimmer that her teammates made fun of her, but she worked hard, developed her skill, and in 1996 in Atlanta became the first American female to win four gold medals at a single Olympics. To the girls that gave me a hard time in high school, I’d like to say thank you, Van Dyken said. I do not think I would have the drive I have if it wasn’t for them . This is a victory for all the nerds out there. For all the kids out there struggling, if they can keep plugging away at it, something good will come of it.

Of course, the resiliency and survivor capabilities of top athletes are what endears them to fans, said Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports. Our surveys show that people about 80 percent want to see the athletes struggle their survival against amazing odds, and then their subsequent moment of victory or sadly, often times, their agonizing moment of defeat.

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