The Oscar Pistorius story is the latest example of an elite athlete’s alleged behavior dominating both the news and the sports sections of the media. To fans, it’s yet another example of being forced to confront the fact that sports heroes are real people.
In my work as a sport psychologist with elite athletes over the years, I have come to understand that there are unique pressures that come along with being in the spotlight on a daily basis. This is by no means to excuse an athlete’s behavior, but it is an attempt to understand it.
In sport psychology, we talk about behavior being a combination of personality and the environment. The environment in which our elite athletes are raised is often radically different from the average environment where most people are raised. If someone is treated as special from a very young age, he/she may not have to live by the same rules of cause and effect that other people must live by. If there are not consequences to one’s behavior, this can impact on a person’s ability to learn to make good decisions.
I have also learned that just because an athlete is big and strong physically, that does not mean that the athlete is big and strong emotionally. Just because someone has a professional level of athletic skill does not mean that he/she has a professional level of maturity, judgment, and wisdom. Most of our pro athletes are in their young to mid-20s. Why should we expect them to be equipped to be polished public speakers, be able to handle the media recording every comment they make, and to be good role models in all aspects of their life outside their sport?
Research indicates that our society continues to elevate the status and prestige of our athletes. In the past, American heroes were likely to include teachers, clergy, politicians, entertainers, and military figures in addition to athletes. Today, however, the list of heroes named by our youth is dominated by athletes.
I often wonder how I would have acted when I was 20 to 30 years old if I were given star status. What would it be like for me to walk into a room where everybody knew me and I didn’t know anyone? How would I have dealt with the temptations both on and off the playing field that many athletes confront on a daily basis? If I work up one morning with an abundance of fame and money, what decisions would I have made?
In my opinion, to be an elite athlete and live up to the expectations of fans in our society, an athlete needs to have one-in-a-million athletic talent along with a one-in-a-million personality. Of course, fame and the recognition that comes along with it, has an abundance of benefits and potential riches. The reality, however, is that being an elite athlete is a package deal of expectations, responsibility, and pressure.