I have a theory about athletic greatness, or more specifically, about what it takes to achieve greatness as an athlete. It’s quite simple. There are two mental traits that I see again and again in athletes of the highest caliber. One is a drive toward greatness that has the untamable ferocity of a full-blown disorder. In other words, great athletes have a screw loose—not in the sense of being certifiably insane, mind you, but rather in the sense of being unbalanced in a way that serves them well on the racecourse but not always so well away from it. The other mental trait I see again and again in the greatest athletes is a kind of self-mastery that blends together good judgment, strong discipline, and self-control. In other words, great athletes have their shit together.
There are exceptions—great athletes who have a screw loose but don’t have their shit together and athletes who have their shit together but don’t have a screw loose—but I see these rare exceptions as proving the rule. It is only a mild exaggeration, therefore, to state that if you want to achieve greatness as an athlete, you’d better have a screw loose and your shit together.
I am by no means the first person to propose that great athletes tend to have a screw loose, nor am I the first to note that, by and large, they have their shit together, but whereas others observers always focus on either the one or the other, I stand apart in pointing out that, more often than not, these two traits are combined in the greatest athletes.
When I think about the screw-loose part of the mental formula for athletic greatness, I think of something that six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen said in an interview for LAVA magazine back in 2011: “If you dig deep enough into the life of any of the top athletes who are pushing their bodies to the absolute limits, you’re going to find a story. You’re going to find something that those athletes are trying to make up for that they didn’t get when they were younger. Something that hurt them.”
The limited scientific research in this area backs up Allen’s claim. At the 2012 Olympics, psychologist Mustafa Sarkar and colleagues at the University of Gloucestershire conducted interviews with eight gold medalists and then looked for themes in their remarks. In a paper titled, “What Doesn’t Kill Me: Adversity-Related Experiences Are Vital in the Development of Superior Olympic Performance,” Sarkar reported that “the participants encountered a range of sport- and non-sport adversities that they considered were essential for winning their gold medals, including repeated non-selection, significant sporting failure, serious injury, political unrest, and the death of a family member. The participants described the role that these experiences played in their psychological and performance development, specifically focusing on their resultant trauma, motivation, and learning.”
Having a screw loose isn’t always the result of life experience, though. Some people are born with a screw that is not fully tightened, and many such individuals go on to become great athletes. We need look no further for an example of this type than Mark Allen’s archrival, Dave Scott, who seems to have emerged from the womb with an insatiable drive to keep moving and to test his body’s limits. A self-described “endorphin lunatic,” Scott once said of his superhuman appetite for physical exercise, “If I don’t get it, it just makes me go haywire. It rules my life. It’s a powerful drug for me. It’s huge. It’s gigantic.”
Yet Dave Scott, like all great athletes, had his shit together in most ways. Smart enough to earn a master’s degree in exercise physiology, he almost singlehandedly invented modern triathlon training methodology and was a brilliant tactician on the racecourse. In this respect, Scott was utterly typical of his ilk. Research involving elite athletes has demonstrated that, as a group, these performance outliers are way above average in certain mental traits, especially those having to do with self-regulation, or the ability to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior in pursuit of goals.
Study after study has found that elite athletes are better at self-regulating than lower-level athletes, and that lower-level athletes are better at self-regulating than nonathletes. What’s more, longitudinal studies have shown that self-regulatory capacity in youth athletes predicts subsequent rates of improvement. If you’re interested in learning more about this research, check out the new book The Genius of Athletes, coauthored by Noel Brick, a sport psychologist and leading expert on how elite endurance athletes think, and veteran running journalist Scott Douglas.
While the two mental traits I’ve identified as definitive of athletic greatness—having a screw loose and having one’s shit together—might seem to pull in opposite directions, an intriguing 2020 study led by Gro Jordalen of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences indicates that they are actually complementary. Jordalen’s team conducted in-depth interviews with five female Olympic and world championship medalists in which these athletes were invited to reflect on their evolving motivations and self-regulatory practices over the course of their careers. What emerged from these interviews was evidence of intensive interaction between these factors, with shifts in motivation triggering changes in self-regulatory practices and vice versa. It’s no wonder, then, that a loose screw (which manifests athletically as an insatiable motivation to achieve) and having their shit together (which manifest as an extraordinary self-regulatory capacity) are the two hallmark mental traits of the greatest athletes.
This is one of my blog posts that have no practical value whatsoever. Even in the unlikely event that you accept my theory of athletic greatness, there’s nothing you can do with it to benefit your own sporting pursuits. Informing you that the greatest athletes have a screw loose and their shit together is about as useful as informing you that they all possess a certain gene you lack. Be that as it may, I believe that truth has inherent value, and you never know where a truth revealed might lead. . .