Psychopathy is a personality style that refers to certain effective and interpersonal traits such as selfishness, self-centeredness and a lack of empathy. Psychopathy is considered to involve the concept of evil when people enjoy inflicting both emotional and physical pain, such as that of Sadism Disorder. Salient features include a lack of empathy, manipulation and vulnerability spotting. Psychopathy is not a personality disorder in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), therefore Psychopathy is screened using checklists such as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R).
The Media portrayal influences our perceptions of psychopathy to be highly intelligent, murdering individuals. However many psychopaths function within the law or as part of their job, for example military personnel, police, business men; and our argument, traits in athletes and sport.
Many people initiate in sport to: lower boredom, self stimulation and control aggression. These are characteristics associated with psychopathy according to Hare’s model. On the other hand however, there are factors that are associated that do not correlate with sporting behaviour or athleticism, such as: no realistic long term goals, anti-social acts, low frustration tolerance; which are core essentials for team sports.
Most athletes, specifically Olympic athletes have psychopathy traits:
- Ability to maintain a ‘cool’ head under pressure
- Extreme focus
- Ruthlessness, and desire to win
- Opponent vulnerability spotting
- Mental toughness
- Living in the present
- Charm and charisma
- Lack of empathy and remorse, particularly from winning
We believe that psychopathy is extraordinarily rare in professional athletes however traits are clearly existent; but perhaps as part of their sport or professionalism. We are all thinking aggressive, contact, team sports right? But what about rock climbing? Probably some of the most athletic people in the world, but not really classed as a sport. These athletes have similar traits (highlighted above in bold) that consequently relate to psychopathy.
The fact that many psychopaths are within criminal law does not distinguish them from criminal psychopaths. However does this therefore mean that there are psychopaths in sport, but due to their law abiding nature of their chosen sport they are not seen as such, but rather a mixture of a few correlating traits. With this in mind it could be seen that, players who get penalized are showing psychotic tendency as they have acted on such impulses, with clear disregard to the laws. However such rule breaking is often, one time offences and does not inherently make a bad player or psychopath, as such checklists consider many traits, and high scores to classify an individual as psychopathic.
In order to categorically label an athlete as a psychopath, a thorough evaluation of their social standing and external behavior must be considered. Therefore in conclusion psychopathy is rare in professional sport, but the term ‘psycho’ is ambiguous in many sports, as a reference to losing their cool (the irony as one of psychopathic traits is to keep calm under pressure).
This was a joint article written by Charles Gardiner and Ryan Hesp. Ryan is a third year Psychology with Forensic Psychology BSc (Hons) at The University of Lincoln. Currently working on numerous project but has a keen interest in Sports Psychology in general whilst playing Rugby Union. You can find him on Twitter @RyanHesp
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About Charles Gardiner
Current University Rugby Union coach and Sports Scientist with an interest in all things sport related, I have worked with Lincolnshire FA and the University of Lincoln.