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The Positive Impact of an Addictive Personality on Sporting Success and its Consequences

The British gymnast Nile Wilson steps on stage and introduces himself.In a broad Leeds accent, the 27-year-old describes himself as an Olympic medallist, the owner of several successful businesses, and the face of a YouTube channel with more than 1.5million subscribers.
Then he pauses — and, as if he’s slipped off the pommel horse, he begins again.
“I’m self-destructive,” he says. “Competing at the highest level of sport, I spent four to five nights a week at the casino alone. Once I drink alcohol, I struggle to stop for days or even weeks at a time.
“I believe both introductions are true for the same reason. What can be our strength quickly turns into our weaknesses.”
This is the dichotomy of sporting excellence.
By starting young, athletes are malleable.
Like gymnastics, football asks its participants to adopt an elite performance mindset from an early age. In general, those who turn professional in both sports have generally begun to participate before they are six years old, and are in systematic coaching before they turn 11. And at the end of that, there is no guarantee of a pro career.
There are consequences to this model.
Increasingly, this type of coaching means children are pushed into developing an “addictive personality”; a single-minded focus in which nothing is done in moderation.
Wilson describes this reality, flitting from the sporting (endless hours of training) to the innocent (watching The Lion King movie every night as a small child) to the more sinister (trying to drink more than his friends when out socialising).
“Elite athletes, often driven by the rush of competition and desire to win, certainly display behaviours resembling addiction,” explain sport psychologist Marc Sagal and addiction expert Ned DeWitt. “Their focus, discipline, and pursuit of excellence can border on obsession. These qualities can contribute meaningfully to success — but can also create problems like life imbalance or relationship challenges.”
“I brought the same intensity to a night out as I did to gymnastics,” Wilson said. “It was a competition, I wanted to win.”
In this context, Tottenham Hotspur and England footballer James Maddison’s eye-raising comment that he “likes to be the main man at a roast dinner” begins to make sense.
But as Wilson foreshadows, this mentality can have serious and even traumatic consequences.
“I’m obsessive, I’m competitive, I’m a risk-taker, and I’m a show-off,” Wilson summarises. “You can see where I’m going with this. It sounds like a pretty good concoction to create a champion — and maybe an addict.”
When it comes to football’s relationship with addiction, the crumbs are peeking out from under the carpet.
Brentford’s Ivan Toney and Newcastle United’s Sandro Tonali are both serving lengthy suspensions for betting (eight and 10 months respectively) — with the legal process revealing that both players were gambling addicts.
“The biggest game has started against an illness,” Tonali’s agent, Beppe Riso, said after the news broke. “Sandro is used to big games and usually he wins them. Sandro’s experience will save the lives of other kids.”
Nottingham Forest’s Harry Toffolo was also handed a suspended five-month ban in September, with the FA Commission stating the bets “were the result, at least in large part, of significant mental health challenges”. Harry Toffolo was given a suspended five-month ban in September (Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)
Their experiences are not unique in football — players including Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Paul Merson, Peter Shilton, Andros Townsend and Dietmar Hamann have all spoken about struggles with gambling.
Other addictions are prevalent across the game. This month, The Athletic reported on the scale of tramadol use within the sport, a strong, prescription only painkiller which former Liverpool and England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland said left him suicidal. Earlier in November, Rooney spoke about his reliance on alcohol during his early twenties, while Dele Alli’s emotional interview with Gary Neville in July saw the pair discuss Alli’s dependence on sleeping pills. Gambling, however, is seen as particularly dangerous because it has no direct physiological impact on performance.
“Besides the horrific guilt, the next day I could perform to the best of my ability,” Wilson explained.
“The game has changed,” adds Michael Bennett, head of player welfare at the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) — players’ trade union in England. “It’s very much more data-driven. Gone are the days when you could go out drinking at the weekend, then play on a Tuesday. All the data is checked, from training and in matches. So it’s very difficult to do what you used to, back in the day. That leads itself to the possibility of other vices.”
Football is at the sharp end of wider problems. Research released this month by Ipsos and GambeAware shows that, amongst the general population, nearly two-thirds of problem gamblers (64 per cent), had never spoken to anyone about their issues. Though the overall number of gamblers between 18 and 24 has fallen, those remaining are far more likely to bet more than they can afford (42 per cent). The Sporting Chance clinic, set up by former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams in 2000 to support players with various mental, emotional and addiction issues, had more than 35 players require residential rehabilitation last season, with over 50 per cent related to gambling.
In 2014, research from the Professional Players Federation, an organisation of athletes’ associations across UK sport, stated footballers and cricketers were three times more likely to become problem gamblers than other men in their age group. Eight years on, EPIC, a consultancy group specialising in problem gambling, said professional athletes were now four times more likely than others to develop issues. “The modern footballer has no shortage of stress, pressure to perform, access to certain substances, and a culture that sometimes normalises risky behaviours, all of which might contribute to addiction and other mental health problems,” say Sagal and DeWitt.
These numbers are startling — and beg the question of why.
There is an increasing belief that the increasing pervasiveness of addictive personalities is a contributing factor.
When Kobe Bryant, one of the most influential athletes in history, wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune, he titled it “Obsession is natural”.
For Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Bryant, and his legendary work ethic, maybe. Later on in that piece, he expanded on that intensity: “I swore to approach every matchup as a matter of life and death.” The mindset he coined as “mamba mentality” is not so different at all from an obsessive personality. Kobe Bryant playing for the LA Lakers in 2016 (Harry How/Getty Images)
Three years after his untimely death, Bryant’s legacy continues.
Newcastle winger Anthony Gordon, then at Everton, paid tribute to the 41-year-old when he died in a helicopter crash, posting on Twitter: “RIP to the greatest competitor the sports world has seen. A true definition of hard work and dedication. A Kobe video or quote has gotten me through some tough times during my career. Thank you for inspiring me CHAMP.”_{/P_}
_{P_Gordon, in turn, has displayed elements of that mentality. Speaking to the Newcastle matchday programme last month, he revealed: “I get really obsessed with things. Whatever is on my mind for those couple of weeks, I’ll buy all the gear, research every detail of it; it’s just my personality.
“I think that’s a good thing because I don’t settle for just being average at something — I want to be the best at everything I do. It’s a good mindset to have, but I think it stresses the people around me out.”_{/P_}
_{P_While the latter part of th@author次at statement hints at some minor repercussions of an obsessive personality, this is not to pick out Gordon, or even to say he is at risk — but to highlight how widespread this attitude is within sport. The England Under-21 international is not an extreme example.
During the 2017 Women’s European Championship, Sarina Wiegman, then coaching her native Netherlands’ national team, found herself so consumed by the job that she left a planned family day halfway through the tournament, telling her loved ones: “I’m sorry, I can’t relax. I can’t do this.”_{/P_}
_{P_In other sports, legendary England rugby union international Jonny Wilkinson was famous for his obsessive preparation — something that he revealed post-retirement had left him with acute anxiety.
Wilkinson, who refused to leave training sessions until he had completed six consecutive successful kicks from the touchline, maintained a stratospheric success rate of 95.7 per cent during the final five years of his career at French club Toulon. He also taught himself how to kick drop goals with both feet — then unprecedented…


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