While it is easy enough to spot great athletes, it is far more difficult to predict who the great competitors will be. Jim McGee is the director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore and a former consulting psychologist for the baseball Orioles. Of elite athletes he says, "I think that they are wired differently. In a way they are neurological freaks whose bodies almost always do what they want them to do. It is hard for the rest of us to imagine what this must feel like. You can pick them out while they are still kids. Whatever the game, they are the ones doing things quicker, more effectively and more easily than anybody else."
But for psychological reasons many others with exceptional physical gifts never become notable competitors. Former Arizona State and NFL coach Frank Kush tells a story about two tight ends he remembers from his days at Arizona State. The first was big and fast and was signed by ASU in hot competition with other institutions. It turned out to be no coup. "He wasn't lazy, and he wasn't stupid, but he was dogged about repeating the same mistakes over and over," says Kush. "We couldn't show him that he had to develop new skills to get the job done. He came from a small school, and it seemed that being at a big school, in a relatively big city, playing with people who were almost as talented as he was put him into a state of shock. He stayed in shock for four years."
The second tight end was a recruiting afterthought, a roster fill-in. "He went about 190 and wasn't that quick," says Kush. "Don't get me wrong, he had some talent, but not the kind the first kid did. What he had was a great attitude. You never had to tell him twice what he was doing wrong. He was cocky—not about what he was, but because he was certain he was going to get better. He gave us a couple of good, not great, years. He handled some people who had better tools but couldn't use theirs like he did his. He was a real competitor."
Kush, McGee and others make the point that at the junior levels of sport, prior to high school varsity athletics, physical gifts are often all an athlete needs to succeed. But as he or she moves to levels where everyone is considerably gifted, competitiveness becomes increasingly important, and, paradoxically, having superior physical skills can work to the disadvantage of some athletes—as it apparently did in the case of Kush's catatonic tight end. Early in their careers gifted athletes have few peers and are seldom threatened. They become successful and confident without paying much attention to the management of their talent. When they step up in class and begin meeting others as gifted as they are, the experience can be more traumatic for them than for those less well endowed who long ago learned to operate most efficiently under the stress of competition.
Psychologists, coaches and athletes who have reflected on the subject feel certain that competitiveness can be acquired. The process mostly involves matter over mind rather than the reverse, as is sometimes suggested.
Martens says, "People can certainly learn to be more competitive. It is really rather simple. The trick is to concentrate on mastering specific techniques—positioning the feet, gripping the ball, whatever—until the individual is comfortable with them. This obviously helps mechanically, but it is also the best way to reduce stress and the problems it can cause. If people can focus on mastering specific acts that involve things they can control, they will be less inclined to be distracted by things over which they have no control. Being self-centered in this way helps to reduce anxiety about what opponents are doing, which is the source of most of what is threatening about competition."
A great many athletes have arrived through experience at the same conclusions Martens has reached academically. Often they are expressed in hoary clich�s—keep your eye on the ball, play them one at a time—some of which are highly instructive about the nature of a good competitive attitude and how to get it. George Brett of the Kansas City Royals says he becomes enormously egocentric in the clutch. "I think back to similar instances in the past when I produced," says Brett.
Wooden is known as one of the finest of all teachers of the competitive spirit. He says, "We had drills aimed at improving individual skills and teamwork, of course. The sole responsibility of the players was to master these things so that they could do in games what they had learned in practice, habitually and quickly. If they did so but were still beaten, this indicated the other team had superior athletes or superior coaching. In either case there was no reason for players to hang their heads, for they had no control over those elements.
"It is difficult for young players to learn—because of the great emphasis on records—but, ideally, the joy and frustration of sport should come from performance itself, not the score. While he is playing, the worst thing a player can think about in terms of concentration—and, therefore, of success—is losing. The next worst is winning."
The question comes up frequently, so I asked various authorities whether they thought competitive sports were good or bad for people. Wooden answered succinctly. "You are probably asking about character," he said. "Yes, I think competition can build character. But it can also tear it down."