Narcissism and elite sports:` who is the fairest of us all?`


`Narcissistic personality disorder is named after Narcissus, from Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection. [Sigmund] Freud used the term to describe persons who were self-absorbed, and psychoanalysts have focused on the narcissist’s need to bolster his or her self-esteem through grandiose fantasy, exaggerated behaviour, exhibitionism, and feelings of entitlement.` Donald W. Black

While much has been documented recently about elite sports and athletes` mental health, relatively little discussion has been given over to a detailed understanding of the personalities and personal traits of those that excel in their chosen profession – along with those who find difficulty in making transitions from active participation in elite sports and retirement.

What is narcissism and why is it relevant to elite sports?

We can see from the quote prefacing this article, that narcissism is an extreme form of self-regard with little or no true feelings for others. Yet, narcissism is a part of all our personalities – providing protection from a sometimes hostile world and providing personal satisfaction in our achievements.

However, at its extreme, it also forms a cluster of personality disorders and presents in various subtle or apparent ways but always includes the promotion of oneself above all others. Narcissism can touch all aspects of life and regardless of organisational regulation can prove highly destructive to professional relationships and cooperative structures and so has particular relevance to elite athletes along with those responsible for establishing well-being services.

Behaviours associated with narcissism can be deeply deceptive. Initially, a person may be drawn into a superficial charm and made to feel special – only to be later discarded and devalued when he or she is of no further use to a narcissist. Typically, people are left feeling drained and themselves without a sense of a self-worth.

Isn’t this a good thing given the competitiveness of the modern world and particularly elite sporting cultures?

Well to some extent, however, according to Nelson (2013):

`…narcissists, need constant attention and admiration, they are preoccupied with delusions of “unlimited success, power, brilliance or ideal love.` (Nelson, 2013)

This definition is similar to many others concerning narcissism and is suggestive of unsuccessful outcomes in relationships, with oneself or others. This article will provide an overview of narcissistic behaviours and provide some examples of ways they are applied to elite sporting cultures.

Narcissism and elite sports

Readers may recognise some behaviours from personal experience of elite sports cultures and so reflect on their potential to impact on individual and collective feelings of well-being and in some cases compromise mental health. It has to be held in mind, however, that for the narcissist, normal rules and conduct do not apply. Those with narcissistic tendencies generally hold the view that they are special and never wrong – regardless of outcomes of behaviour.

Subsequently, this article is best read alongside previous articles in Fox Sports Stories concerning the organisation of elite sports and mental health safety.

Malignant narcissism

While such personality traits might offer individual success and repeated outstanding performance, they also lead to a disregard for others and extreme envy of their individual qualities. Narcissism can show as grandiosity or extreme self – importance, leading to a strong sense of entitlement and need for admiration – almost constantly in malignant ways and at the expense of others’ well-being. This typically manifests as arrogance along with a cold exploitation of others and is often accompanied by ideas of unlimited success – sometimes unwarranted.

Given the obvious nature of many of these personality traits, it becomes easier to identify elite sports personalities whose lives are governed by unbridled narcissistic behaviours. The denigration of others provides compulsive feelings of superiority and this may be one reason that football managers, coaches, and players continue to remain in hotbeds of stress despite obvious adverse effects on their health and regardless of current wealth.

Narcissism and fan-bases

For spectators or fans of particular teams, the message may be one of ` you are perfect and I am a part of you`. Any fall from partisan status, real or imagined, can be felt as a wound and bring about strong anger in the form of narcissistic rage and contempt – think of Arsenal fans and their recent outrage despite obvious and enduring achievements over many years.

Nonetheless, in a disguised form, such behaviours are typically referred to as covert or introverted narcissism and are usually much more difficult to recognise.

Covert narcissism

Preston (2016) describes covert or introverted narcissism in the following way:

`What both extrovert and introvert narcissists have in common is their employment of an outer veneer of superiority, to disguise their inner sense of vulnerability. While the extroverted narcissist will say, in so many ways, that “I’m better than you”, the introverted narcissist will strongly hint at it.`

Key to this statement is the inner sense of worthlessness or vulnerability that is typically both a hallmark and a part of the multi-point genesis of narcissism. They are feelings, which others are made to experience on behalf of the narcissist – and are a psychological defense mechanism for an individual who has experienced emotional distress in early upbringing.

Again, Preston comments that:

`The self-perceptions of some introverted [covert]narcissists include notions such as: “I’m special,” “I’m one of a kind,” “I’m ahead of my time,” “I’m so unique no one understands me,” and “I’m so smart I’m above everyone else.`

Thinking in opposites and leaving chaos in their wake

The trick here is to think in opposites and be aware that messages of superiority are camouflage for deep-seated fears of inferiority, shame, and failure usually again established in childhood and adolescence.

They tend not to be enduring, however, and critical moments in a person’s life – including ageing, retirement, loss of status or prominence or excellence in a chosen field can result in drastic emotional difficulties, often corresponding with previous conflicts associated with narcissistic behaviours. Interpersonal chaos and moderated rage are often dynamics left in the narcissist’s wake.

There are various personality types throughout all elite sports, as in other professional roles, and each will impact on individual behaviours and relationships with oneself and others in unique ways.

Staying safe in unsafe environments

Finally, a recent BBC article concerning Scottish Football League player David Cox described how he was exploited and taunted by fans and opposition players because of disclosing his experience of mental ill-health.

Cox describes ways that others attempted to gain an advantage using cruel methods of verbal abuse because of his difficulties and believes that:

`…attempts to deal with the stigma surrounding mental health had to be matched with efforts to challenge other social issues, such as racism and bigotry.` (Cox, 2018)

Evidently, such issues have potential to impact greatly on elite athletes’ mental health. Challenges, therefore, lie ahead for regulatory bodies concerning elite sports to educate all involved regarding mental health but also to find ways to moderate narcissistic and aggressive behaviours associated with winning at any cost.

Much of the current literature concerning elite athletes and mental ill-health focuses on the need for openness as a means of reducing stigma and minimising shame. However, to address concerns effectively more will need to be understood about the varied psychological profiles of those who are drawn to the overly competitive environment of elite sports along with its transcultural affiliations.

To admit vulnerability in such diverse environments, without a global understanding of the complexity of mental health and personality types, could be likened to shedding blood and invite further misery to already distressing and harmful situations.