It is often said that in order to achieve success in sport, at some level you have to be an a***hole. ‘To be successful you can’t be a nice guy.’ ‘To be successful you have to be arrogant/selfish/an egotist.’ You see this often, as all sorts of antisocial behaviour is defended under this catch all umbrella. The same logic is applied to coaches. Coaches play tricks on opposing teams, or browbeat referees and officials to gain an advantage. I have personally seen all sorts of disgraceful behaviour from both coaches and players whose egos and sense of self worth is determined only by the outcome of the games. And I stress that I have seen behaviour from at the junior level that is much worse then that of most professionals, and even by the above definition, far less defensible. The level of the competition is not the determinant here.
It was with great interest that I read this article about Rafael Nadal. Apart from just being a well written article about a great champion, it introduces the idea that his great fighting qualities are solely positive. He is not fighting to defend his ego, to determine his short term self worth, or to prove a point to the world. As Boris Becker is quoted as saying “He loves to be down and out. It comes from love. Amazing.” ‘It comes from love.’ I am reasonably confident that competitiveness has not often been described in that way.
It begs the question, do you actually have to be an a***hole to win or is that myth perpetrated by a***holes to excuse their own bad behaviour?
PLEASE NOTE: The correct spelling is a***hole. It is not a**hole. That would be something to do with a donkey.
I would say the last one. But as often in life, the first sort seems to have success. I am pretty sure that this is only on a short term. At the end athletes, coaches, men who be an A***hole will not be happy in their life and surely will not do much out of love.
I think the lesson is that everyone can have success. A***holes often have success because the things that make them like that are the things that drive them to want to achieve.
But it doesn´t have to be negative things that drive people to want success. And people shouldn´t be (and needn´t) pushed into being a certain way.
All it takes is one example of someone who is not an a**hole and quite successful to refute the idea that one needs to be one to get ahead. We can certainly find plenty of those examples, so I think the answer to the question is pretty obvious.
That said, we do need to differentiate someone who is just simply a jerk by dint of their personality (or from some belief that they must be) from someone who makes decisions which aren’t popular. No one likes to be told “no” or that they have to do something they don’t want to do. The person being the bad guy in that case may get the “a**hole” emotional reaction to that choice, but it’s not really fair to label them an a**hole on that basis.
Similarly, sometimes confidence can be misinterpreted, especially by those who lack it. Granted, arrogance can quickly take someone down the path toward a**holeness, but a certain degree of self-assuredness is required to be good in any field of endeavour.
The important points for me here, are that people are excused of certain behaviours because that is the way they ´have to be´. A completely non sport related example is Steve Jobs who by all accounts was a complete a***hole but is forgiven because he invented the iPod.
Similarly, coaches and others are pushed to be a certain way, because they ´have to be´.
I just really loved Becker´s use of the word love and the idea that that level of performance and achievement can come from something so positive. It is the version we rarely hear of.
Nice blog, by the way 🙂
I’ve thought about this a lot and have found that to a large extent, people who advocate that you need to be an a**hole to be successful are successful a**holes on a quest for self-justification.
I think that tennis is actually a great microcosm to look at this phenomenon. As an individual sport there is no room for people of varying characteristics to mesh together, hiding the weaknesses and highlighting the strengths. Basically, what you see is what you have. And when you look at it, the vast majority of enduring champions in tennis seem to be what we would call people of character and humility: Graf, Federer, Sampras, Agassi (once he pulled his head in!), Navratilova, Evert.
I actually think that to be a great champion you cannot be an ‘a**hole’. The relentlessness required to be an enduring champion requires an intrinsic motivation and even temperament, and that ‘a**holes’ struggle with this. Of course, there are examples of the opposite, and in the end everyone will justify their own opinions by cherry picking the example they like.
Mark, you once assured us, that success is not a function of wins and losses, but rather a function of learning and development (see https://markleb1.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/development-or-success-testimonials/ ). So, why would anyone be eager to learn to be or to develope into an a***hole, be it on or off the court???
The article on Rafa Nadal’s win gives us evidence on this point. I read it as saying that the reason for Nadal’s success is his eagerness and love to learn and to move on in his developement as a player, even within the most important competitions, and not just in training sessions.
I have noticed a common trait of self mindedness, even a selfishness about how elite athletes spend their time. A focus on putting themselves, their training, recovery & preparation ahead of others. I guess it becomes easy for many athletes to slip from this focus in the sporting part of their lives over to being a prick all the time, especially when the poor behaviour is often reinforced by success (a mistaken causation) and the readiness of coaches, and fans to excuse the inexcusable.
At the truly elite level in sport, music or fame it is probably harder and takes more time and effort to have good manners, have patience with fans and those who want your time, than it is to be rude and self absorbed.
It’s a shame that those same traits that allow them to become exceptional at sport, etc aren’t always applied to other aspects of their lives. I guess that’s why we appreciate the true champions who have the full package.