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Turning Adversity Into Advantage

We never had enough to eat, and I became angry, and my anger stayed with me through my career. It drove me.

Former Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas

If top athletes feel a strong need to prove themselves, to defend their pride, ego or their self-esteem, this attitude may come from one of several factors, including genetics, their childhood, the sports world, or a combination of all three, psychologists say.

A lot of athletes get their intense drive from their upbringing, said Dan Landers, sports researcher. It may be sibling rivalry, poverty, or pushy parents with undue expectations. If a family splits up, the child may think it’s his fault and the way to get the parents back together, or get dad to respect him, is to excel at a high level of sports. It may be subconscious.

Sports is a breeding ground for youths looking to prove themselves, Tom Tutko said. It can give them attention and accolades and make them feel special, especially if they’re from a large family It can help children with psychological or emotional problems, enhance their self-image.

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Research of the backgrounds of 100 of the top athletes of all time revealed that 62 had a missing, abusive, or dead parent while another 30 had an authoritarian or unusually pushy parent. Many grew up in poverty or had a serious illness. Baseball great Hank Aaron was raised in a house with no windows; boxer Muhammad Ali’s father had a history of alcohol and crime; Roger Bannister learned to run out of fear as a child from Nazi air raid sirens in his English neighborhood; young Bobby Charlton survived a plane crash that killed most of his teammates, then went on to become England’s most celebrated soccer player; tennis great Martina Navratilova and her parents suffered Communist repression and her father’s suicide, and Olympic diver Greg Louganis was ill, had a reading disability, and kept his homosexuality secret.

If the best seem to thrive on pressure, maybe it’s because they’re used to it used to fighting serious battles since they were young, most of which they’ve won. Maybe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Elite athletes and high achievers in all fields have an advantage over competitors because they are battle experienced from a tough childhood, said Michael Boyes, associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Calgary. A classic motivating force is children wanting approval, particularly from their parents. When they don’t get it, one response is to fold up, but the other is to try harder. This theory seems to stand up across the board. In research of the backgrounds of 500 high achievers, including athletes, politicians, scientists, and explorers, 72.4 percent came from a home with serious parental problems, including 41 percent who had at least one parent die before they were 20. Some 31.6 percent had an absent, abusive, or alcoholic parent, and nearly 9 percent were raised in poverty or watched their parents’ finances collapse.

As they seek out and overcome more and more challenges, says University of Nebraska psychologist Richard Dienstbier, the tough should get tougher. Mental resiliency can vary from person to person, athlete to athlete, claims sport psychologist James Loehr. Research shows that some athletes may have a more resilient genetic underpinning which Loehr calls mental toughness.

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