Mustafa Sarkar

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. . .

3 Benefits of Narrativizing Your Athletic Journey

On March 26, my latest book, Life Is a Marathon: A Memoir of Love and Endurancewill be published. It explores what running does for the people for whom running does the most—those men and women who are able to say, “Running changed me,” or even, “Running saved my life.” I am one such person, and my book shares the story of my journey as an athlete, which is inseparable from the story of my journey as a human being.

It is, fundamentally, a story of redemption, perhaps a little like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, which is about a young seaman who is serving as first mate on a steamer ship when it begins to sink (except it doesn’t actually sink) and he abandons it, leaving the passengers to drown, an act of cowardice that he spends the rest of his life trying to atone for. In my case, the act of cowardice that caused me to lose respect for myself was failing to show up for the start of a 3200-meter track race in my junior year of high school. Now, you might be thinking, ‘Gosh, Matt, aren’t you being a little hard on yourself? You chicken out of one little race and then spend the rest of your life trying to atone?’

But this act of cowardice did not occur in isolation. It was part of a general unraveling associated with an inordinate fear and loathing of the pain of racing that ultimately led me to quit the sport a year later. And yes, I am being hard on myself. But that’s what men and women of character do. I may have been mentally weak as a young athlete, but at least I wasn’t okay with it. Plenty of mentally weak individuals are okay with it.

Anyway, the point is that when I got back into endurance sports in my late 20s, I had a monkey on my back that I was determined to pry off.  More important to me even than fulfilling the athletic potential that I had left unfulfilled as a teenager was becoming a brave competitor, because, I discovered, there is no separation between the athlete self and the overall self. A coward on the racecourse is a coward off it, and I did not want to see myself as a coward.

I was a few years into this quest and making decent progress when my wife, Nataki, was struck by a severe mental illness, which proved to be a far greater test of mental fortitude, inasmuch as I was affected by it, than I had ever faced in competition. If you want the full story, you’ll have to read the book. But the upshot is that, in an odd sort of way, my use of endurance sports as a vehicle to become the person I want to be prepared me to handle the much bigger challenge of being Nataki’s husband and primary caregiver post-diagnosis. More oddly still, fighting for Nataki strengthened me further, and this new strength transferred right back to the race course. I don’t think I would be quite the fearless racer I am today if my personal life hadn’t taken the turn it did. It all fits together, you see, almost as if the whole thing were scripted. . .

Not every athlete has the opportunity to write down his or her story and share it with the world in book form, but any athlete can consciously view his or her athletic journey as a story. This is known as narrativizing, a natural human propensity to understand our lives as plotted. Some people are more prone than others to see themselves as the authors and/or heroes of an unfolding, three-dimensional tale. Interestingly, top athletes typically are strongly prone to narrativizing. Psychologist Mustafa Sarkar, among others, has noted in particular that these individuals often look at their lives as stories of overcoming.

How does it benefit an athlete to understand his or her pursuit of sport not merely as a series of events but as a story? In three ways. First, when you turn a series of events into a story, you infuse those events with meaning that they would otherwise lack. It’s really a way of making your pursuit of the sport more significant, in both senses of the word. Running or cycling or whatever becomes not just something you do but a part of your identity, and when this happens you invest more of yourself in it and get more out of it.

Narrativizing the athletic journey also boosts motivation. Every story needs a happy ending. With rare exceptions, athletes who do narrativize see their happy ending as lying ahead of them, not behind. There is something they must achieve in order to make the whole tale hang together. This perceived need to write an as-yet-unwritten happy ending to the story of one’s athletic journey is inherently motivating—another way of inspiring greater personal investment and of bringing about the rewards that come therewith.

Finally, narrativizing sport fosters a sense of agency, of being in control of what happens next in your athletic life, in much the same way that a novelist controls the fates of his or her characters. It is difficult to overstate the value of this feeling of free autonomy, of making things happen rather than being merely a puppet of fate, an object to which things happen. For as long as I can remember, I have naturally regarded life is a blank canvas that I can color in any way I please (within certain constraints), and I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t be where I am today, as an athlete and a person, if not for this creative perspective on life.

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