Is elite athlete “arrogance” a performance hack? Part 1

I wanted to do something a little different today. Most of my blog posts so far have focused on the clinical/neuropsych side of psychology, with a lot of speculation thrown in. Today will still be speculative, but I want to go back to my sport psych roots… OK, the neuropsych will still be there. 

The other day I was thinking about athletic performance (by the way, exciting news: I’m starting a performance psychology business with a couple of other psychs, specialising in organisational performance, check it out at and it occurred to me that, just like everyone else, athletes use psychological hacks to increase their performance. If you’ve been reading my blogs, you’ll recognise that I’m pretty big on the idea that people often “hack” their neurological platforms via their internal “software” in order to get an effect that’s outside the norm. For athletes, there’s a big one that stands out for me – athletic arrogance.

When I say “arrogance”, I suppose I mean the extreme confidence, the projected disdain and aloofness, the implicit “I’m superior” vibe and, often, the lack of ‘normal’ behaviour (like interaction, communication and empathy), that many elite athletes project. I’m going to suggest that this behaviour cluster is actually a (possibly subconscious) ‘hack’ to allow an athlete to be able to access his or her expert systems, without the limitations imposed by central command in situations of self doubt. I suppose, before going any further, that I should explain what I mean by expert systems and central command – things will start to make sense at some stage!

So, an elite athlete is a complex combination of genetic predisposition, psychological makeup, and physiological adaptation. Let’s break this down a bit. Very few athletes reach an elite level without a genetic predisposition toward their particular sport. Basketballers need to be tall and fast, sprinters need a high proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, cyclists need to be able to produce large amounts of power over a sustained period of time. Some of these things can be trained (or enhanced by training), others can’t. All the right awesome genes won’t do any good, however, without a particular psychological makeup – one that allows a person to remain focused, deal with pain and distraction, and commit to years of work before any major payoff. Some of this will come from a person’s environment and upbringing, some will be learnt and some will be enhanced through their training. Athletes who are able to succeed at the highest levels tend to have psychological adaptations that are well outside of normal (including athletic arrogance – we’ll get to this). Last, genes and psychology only count for so much, physiological adaptations in the form of extreme fitness from long-term, focused training, as well as neurological motor control adaptations from thousands of hours of practice, allow for high-level performance in a way that is way beyond what a regular person could achieve.

One of the things that comes out of the combination of these psychological and physiological adaptations is a highly-tuned ‘expert system’. I’ll try to explain this using an analogy. Think back to when you learnt to drive: to begin with it was a nightmare of confusion. You had so much to remember, and you had to focus with 100% of your attention. Your competency was low, your ability was low, and you made mistakes frequently and easily. Nevertheless, as little as a few months after you got your driver’s licence, you were driving confidently, probably with an arm out of the window and the radio on. Of course, as soon as your comfort zone was impeded (for instance, driving at night in a rainstorm, on a freeway), you were (and possibly still are) back to almost beginner status – you had (have) to turn off the radio, focus hard, and avoid distractions. What’s gone on here is a gradual process of adaptation (we call this ‘learning’) that affected a wide variety of systems. In particular, you automatised a variety of complex movements (like changing gears) and encoded this information in your cerebrum. The advantage of this sort of encoding is that, once it’s done, it’s really fast and pretty much automatic. The disadvantage is that it’s not easily adaptable (like when you need drive in a rainstorm) – you need to focus hard to change things that have been programmed, and this concentration actually reduces your accuracy and effectiveness (i.e., you go back to being like a beginner). The only fix for this limitation is to encode a large amount af variants on the desired behaviour through repeated exposure – exactly what athletes do.

In reality, this system is more like a series or cascade of expert systems. At the top is central command (your conscious mind), which is used for executive decisions (like starting the car, or navigating to your destination). Below this are a series of increasingly basic systems that take care of the behaviours required for the action to take place (like controlling the muscles for gear changing and reacting to visual input) – this is also two-way – down (for control), and up (for information and feedback).

The problem with the expert system is that it’s prone to disruption. Like our nighttime rainstorm analogy, when we’re put in a situation that is outside of what we’ve trained for, we question our ability to function effectively, and remove access to the expert system. In other words, we try to do everything from ‘central command’. This tends to result in a breakdown of performance, because ‘central command’ simply can’t function with the effectiveness of the expert system (if you’re a computer nerd like me, think of serial versus parallel processing). For athletes, a lot of things can trigger this breakdown, such as an unfamiliar environment, a new situation, or an accident. But in actuality, these external events are only events – the real threat to athletic performance comes from our reaction to these events, hence the main threat to performance: our minds.

So now I need you to track back and read some of my previous blogs – these are all about how our minds (software) and our brains (hardware) can get in the way of our functioning effectively. It might be because of a limbic system takeover (the inner monkey), or because of distracting thoughts and feelings, but whatever is going on, it’s very easy for the finely tuned sustem that is an elite athlete to breakdown. In my work as a sport psychologist, most performance issues have come from some sort of mental or neurological interruption that results in the athlete questioning his or her competence, and then shutting down the expert systems in an attempt to control everything form ‘central command’. The instant decay in performance acts as a feedback loop, increasing the focus on the distraction and further reducing expert system viability. From here, it usually ends in tears.

Right – that took a long time… So going back to my original premise: athletic arrogance is actually  a hack to ensure expert system viability. How could this work? My theory is that athletes develop a series of psychological adaptations (manifesting as arrogance) to reduce the likelihood of expert-system failure. A lot of the time, these adaptations aren’t consciously thought through, it’s just a case of adopting techniques that appear to work (or imitating it in others), and then having them reinforced when they’re effective (until, eventually, they are automated themselves – kind of an expert system for keeping expert systems running). So, for example, projecting a sense of unflappable (sometimes appearing as smug) confidence can make an athlete feel a lot more effective and less likely to question his or her ability. Likewise, refusing to acknowledge the successes of others, or deliberately ignoring distractions, can enhance their ability to maintain focus (and enhance expert system efficacy). Last, ‘psyching’ out opponents through swagger can help reinforce an athlete’s expert system viability, by potentially disrupting other’s expert systems – providing an advantage. Over time, these behaviours become reinforced over and over again – and become pretty much ingrained.

Put another way, arrogance is simply the permission an athlete gives him or herself to let his or her brain/body get on with it without conscious interruption, combined with a series of behaviours to mediate this permission. Training results in competence – arrogance fuels competence. I should point out at this point, that confidence isn’t the same thing as athletic arrogance – confidence (not as deeply rooted) is easily broken which results in questioning and consequent mistrust of trained expert systems, leading to easy system breakdown.

There’s one more thing that needs to be added here: objective feedback. Unlike many other performers (expect in the dramatic arts), athletes are exposed to consistent, objective feedback about their performance. Because competitive sports are, well, competitive, performance feedback is pretty obvious. You’ve either come first or you haven’t, or you’ve either beaten your personal best or you haven’t. In other words, because of the ‘in your face’ feedback, there’s not a lot of room in elite athletics for self delusion – if you don’t perform, you don’t get sponsors, or are kicked off the team, or simply don’t get the opportunity to compete again at the same level. This means that athletic arrogance has to be fueled by at least some reality – they are actually good at what they do. There are, however, a lot of areas (including amateur athletics, but also including business, politics, academia, medicine, and a whole load of others) in which performance isn’t measured objectively or consistently, where feedback is limited or subjective, and in which arrogance can mutate into hubris.

So arrogance fuels competence -sometimes. Unfortunately, sometimes it fuels being a dick. In part 2 next week, I’m going to expand the arrogance idea beyond athletes and into other areas that require heightened performance – we’ll look at the transformation of arrogance into hubris and how, without objective feedback, people can become enormous dicks, often in a way that’s downright dangerous (and, honestly, what could be more dangerous than an enormous schlong?).

Oh, one more thing. I’d like to do some shameless self-promotion (hopefully without sounding like a dick). I’m working hard to build up my consulting business (both counselling psychology and organisational performance) but it’s slow going. If you could use my services or know someone who could, I’d be really grateful for the work – you can check out more about what I do at my website:

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