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Aggressive Athletes: Out of Control and Unapologetic

Why do athletes lash out? And are they really sorry?

"It is wise to direct your anger towards problems -- not people; to focus your energies on answers -- not excuses." -William Arthur Ward


Recently, University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert was called out by ESPN for punching, kicking, shoving, and throwing elbows against opponents after her team fell behind in a conference tournament game. In her most blatant attack, she yanked back an opponent's ponytail, ripping her to the ground.

News coverage of these incidents follows a time-worn pattern: the highlight reels run, the sports talk jockeys express outrage, the player makes a media apology, the commissioner steps in to deliver a light sentencing, pundits debate whether the punishment was severe enough, the player eventually returns to business as usual, and the video clip lives on in infamy through endless replays on YouTube.

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Tuesday, the New York Times published Elizabeth Lambert's apology and an attempt to put her actions "in context". Not surprisingly, the apology seemed scripted, hollow, insincere, and devoid of genuine remorse. After expressing her deep and lasting regret over the incident, she immediately launches into some very familiar externalization and blame refrains:

She distances herself from the actions: "That is not me"... "That's not the type of player I am". Except for the fact that it WAS her, because who else was it? And it's EXACTLY the type of player she is, because that's how she played. She carried on this conduct throughout an entire half of play. She received a yellow card for aggressive play in each of her prior two games.

She minimizes and writes off the context of the situation: "It's a game. Sports are physical." Sure, sports are physical and aggressive. But there are a ton of games played without inappropriately violent incidents. How many times do you see a player whipped to the ground by her hair?

She blames opposing fans and aggressive opponents. She blames the refs for not throwing more yellow and red cards.

And not surprisingly, she blames the media. "I think the way the video came out, it did make me look like a monster." Really? Did James Cameron come in and drop some CGI effects on the video? She goes on: "I definitely feel because I am a female it did bring about a lot more attention than if a male were to do it. It's more expected for men to go out there and be rough." Really?!?! Last time I checked, male players face similar media scrutiny for similar incidents. Anybody ever heard of Ron Artest? What about Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount, who was suspended for sucker punching linebacker Byron Hout after a loss to Boise State? Or Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes, who was blasted in the media and suspended after attempting to gouge the eyes of a Georgia opponent during a pile-up? And then there's wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who in the hours following a particularly poor performance for the Cleveland Browns was arrested for assault after he sucker punched a 130-lb friend of Cleveland sports superstar LeBron James.

It looks like rage in sports is, well, all the rage. So why is every one so angry? Impulsive acts of rage and aggression often emerge following threats to an overinflated and unstable sense of self-worth. Interestingly, the same people with excessive confidence in their talents and abilities can also be incredibly insecure. This kind of fragile egotism is common in sports, especially on the national stage.  While sports promote self-respect, team cooperation, and respectful competition, they also fuel pride, fierce individualism, and aggression.  Athletes work hard, are driven to win, and are rewarded with fans and fame. At the same time, their image and respect can turn on a dime. Athletes are often judged to be only as good as their last game. Fans and media can shift loyalties in a heartbeat. A poor performance, a lost game, or a losing season can cause a serious blow to the ego, and some people react to these slights with impulsive and explosive rage.

Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut defined the phenomenon as narcissistic rage. In his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, social psychologist (and PT blogger) Roy Baumeister describes it as threatened egotism. From both clinical and experimental observations, it becomes apparent that the most hostile and aggressive individuals are ones with high, but unstable, self-esteem. Baumeister writes: "These people think well of themselves in general, but their self-esteem fluctuates. They are especially prone to react defensively to ego threats, and they are also more prone to hostility, anger, and aggression than other people". Clinically, it's an extremely difficult dynamic to treat. Fragile egotists rarely take accountability for their actions, constantly blame others, feel like victimized outsiders or outcasts, and react with aggression at any suggestion that they may have some psychological shortcoming.

If Elizabeth Lambert is to blame anything, it should be her own arrogance and insecurity. Indeed, the New York Times article notes that she has often struggled with low self-confidence and uncertainty about her abilities to play at an elite competitive level. It's hard to lose. It undermines all the hard-work it takes to be successful and the pride we take in our talents and accomplishments. We all do things in the heat of the moment that can be hurtful, disrespectful, and regrettable; let ye among us without sin cast the first stone.  But the mark of maturity is revealed in how one responds to and grows from such experiences. Character develops from focusing our energies on answers-not excuses.

Jared DeFife, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine."

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