Sunday, January 11, 2009

For Every Curse there is a Blessing: Elite Performance & Trauma

I read an article in the New York Times yesterday that just made my jaw drop. It's an article about psychiatric consultant Michael Miletic and his theory that many elite athlete's incredible focus and ability to perform comes from one of the strangest places:
He theorizes that the highly adaptive abilities of successful athletes were often formed to create a sense of invulnerability in the face of early physical and emotional hurdles. Thus, the seeds of success for some athletes -- perhaps as well for some opera singers, police officers, test pilots, surgeons -- are sown in trauma, often including physical abuse.

''Now don't take this as a blanket statement,'' said Miletic recently in his Birmingham office, ''but I have seen a significant proportion of high-achieving athletes who have come out of abusive homes. Their ability to block out pain and fear, to dissociate from their emotions, comes from their adaptive tactics to the trauma of their childhoods. It's a form of compensation.

I would argue that in order for these athletes to make the best of this traumatic childhood and turn it into something positive, they might also have to have the "resilience gene" as well.

If you read this story (and it is worth the read) you'll learn about how a hockey player lost his signature shot and found it again. And in an interesting turn of events, it turns out that this athlete could put his strong work ethic acquired from intense sports training and apply it to the work he needed to do in his therapy.

The player's willingness to be treated -- he asked his family to leave the intensive care unit so he could talk to the young psychiatrist -- and the superficiality of the insights he offered turned out to be typical of Miletic's future athletic patients. So was the thoughtfulness and enthusiasm; the player approached his initial psychotherapy with the same work ethic he brought to physical training.

But he resisted the trip into his unconscious mind. The hockey player ascribed his suicide attempt to outside pressures; the fans and news media expected him to lead a subpar team racked by dressing-room dissent. Because of this pressure, he said, he had become so unsure of himself that he even suspected his fiancee of having an affair with a teammate.

It was not until the second year of therapy that the player was ready to deal with the repressed trauma that had led to his breakdown. He had become anxious because he was soon to be married and a father, and that had stirred old ghosts.

So for me this was a fascinating story. I am no elite athlete. But I certainly can relate to this story. I wonder how many other elite and endurance athletes gain an edge from the disassociation they learned during their traumatic childhoods. It seems to every curse there is a blessing. And it is stories like these that make me keep looking for the blessing at every turn.

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