In Defence of Sport’s Bad Boys

Your Honour, let me plead the case for bad behaviour in male athletes.

It’s not an excuse I’m offering up, just some understanding.

I’m talking about the Big Bad Boys of Sport. Such as Olympic gold medallists Usain Bolt and Ryan Lochte, the latest to sully their superstardom with a disastrous night on the town.

First Lochte, who vandalised a petrol station, then made up a robbery story better than any he ever heard at bedtime. Then Bolt, he with the longtime girlfriend, who found himself on FB tucked up in bed, supposedly with the former wife of a Rio drug lord. Ooops.

While unique events, let’s not pretend these are rare occurrences. Sport is awash with stories of young male athletes who play hard and fall harder. Sometimes, at huge cost to themselves and their sporting careers. Sometimes, at other people’s expense — and pain.

But here’s the thing. Fame, money, women, having pretty much everything you want doesn’t stop you from doing dumb things. Especially when you mix in a culture of entitlement and as many free shots as you can handle without vomiting. Or even if you do.

As a clinical psychologist working in sport, this is part of my world. Sometimes I don’t sleep so well for fear that my charges will end up in the media for the wrong reasons. Occasionally my fears have come true.

Sometimes male athletes behave badly, and often there’s just no excuse — especially when their actions hurt others. But they’re also vulnerable. Many don’t process emotions well or struggle to open up; they don’t always get advice from the right people, they are big targets for stirrers, they don’t see trouble coming and, most of all, they’re impulsive.

Impulsiveness, the tendency to act or speak based on current feelings or instinct, rather than logical reasoning, is a rat trap for male athletes. Young men generally, for that matter.

Going with “gut” feelings during competition is often the very thing that makes them great. But it can have a nasty backlash in real life.

In his book “Emotional Intelligence”, psychologist Daniel Goleman distinguishes between two key functions of the mind:

#1. Emotional Mind — based in the limbic system and driven by current feelings and impulse.
#2. Intellectual Mind — based in the pre-frontal cortex or frontal lobe and driven by reason and logic. As the Risk-Reward zone of the brain, it is charged with making decisions and figuring out the consequences of actions.

Neurology experiments have shown that, in most people,the frontal lobe reaches full development at around the age of 25. The gap between full physical and frontal lobe maturity is sometimes used to explain seemingly thoughtless or reckless acts in teenagers and young adults.

Most young people are guilty of making poor choices because it’s part of being young. But impulsiveness becomes dysfunctional when those “just do it” decisions harm others, themselves, or people they love and care about.

Sadly, and all too often, that’s where impulsivity lands.

There is no point lecturing young men: THINK BEFORE YOU ACT. Especially when they have just blown out every scrap of physical and mental energy on the field or track — or in the pool. That’s like spitting in the wind. It’s naive to leave restraint solely in their hands. You have to set boundaries, plant minders and put a safety net in place. Because if you don’t, the consequences could be, well, just like they are for a couple of Olympic champions right now.

Bolt and Lochte are not kids. You might say that at the ages of 30 and 32 respectively, they are too old to plead the case for under-developed frontal lobes. And if you did, you’d be right.

But let’s not go on about it (too much). We’re all flawed. How much of a fool would you be if you were rich and famous and surrounded by temptation? Or had your worst moment with alcohol or sex go viral? How much explaining would you have to do?

So before you pull the accusatory card on these guys and other young athletes, remember it’s not Super-Easy to be them. In fact, there is a very good case for NOT being rich, famous and gifted.

There are times when it’s cool to watch mega-talent from your couch and be grateful that you can’t do what they can. This may be one of them.


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