By Allen Fox, Ph.D., c 2013, All Rights Reserved
When I was working on my first book, “If I’m the Better Player, Why Can’t I Win?”, I became interested in how tennis champions differed in personality from ordinary people. (As opposed to simply being superior physical athletes.) To answer this I administered personality tests to 26 highly-ranked tennis professionals. The test was called the Cattell 16 PF test and, with 180 questions, measures a number of “personality factors.” Each is measured along a continuum such as suspicious vs., trusting, dominant vs. submissive, anxious vs. calm. They were by no means all the same mentally but there were several characteristics in which, as a group, they showed statistically significant differences from the average person.
As a group they differed in being more suspicious, anxious, antagonistic, dominant and intelligent. Although I did not test John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, they also fit this profile nicely. They are both bright, quick to become antagonistic, and twitchy (anxious), having difficulty looking you in the eye during conversations. Of course this does not mean that all the players tested were suspicious or anxious or intelligent or dominant. A few were trusting or relaxed or less intelligent or even submissive. My statements only refer to group averages compared to the norms.
And the trait that stood out above all others was suspicion. A substantial number of them tended to look other people as potential antagonists. As a general rule high readings in this area, coupled with high anxiety scores, are predictive of troubled personal relationships and exceptionally high readings correlate positively with clinical personality disorders.
Why might characteristics like anxiety, antagonism, and suspicion be useful to a tournament tennis player? Because an anxious person is a person who is motivated to practice and work to improve. Small issues jangle their nervous systems and set off alarm bells to stimulate action. It moves them to practice and work.
Suspicion can also be useful in competitive tennis. Suspicious people think that others are out to get the best of them or do them wrong. In an ambiguous situation they immediately suspect the other person of evil intentions. They look at others as antagonists rather than allies, and they are quick to take steps to protect themselves. They are happy to get even with people they feel have wronged them. It useful on the tennis court because this type of person isn’t going to give the “enemy” on the other side of the net the satisfaction of winning. After two or three hours grinding under a hot sun the normal person may question whether winning the match is all that necessary and, in fact, really worth the cost. People viewing their opponents as a antagonists have extra motivation and cannot abide seeing them win. It tends to become personal, and it drives them to do whatever it takes to win. And if they lose they plot revenge. It motivates them to practice extra hours to get better so that this does not happen again. Losing to one’s enemies is too painful to bear gracefully.
I have seen these traits in action at close range since I have a bit of them myself. For example one evening many years ago my close friend and ex-doubles partner, Larry Nagler, and his wife, Jackie, invited my wife and me to their home for dinner. Larry had a pool table there and, after dinner, he badgered me into a game. Larry had played a lot of pool so he was pretty good, while I, never having played, was terrible. Pool is a tricky game. Unless you hit the ball perfectly it is very hard to control. Long shots are nearly impossible for novices and the only balls you can make at this stage are balls right next to the pocket. Being even more competitive than I am, Larry was having a wonderful time toying with me. We played straight pool and Larry spotted me 20 balls out of 25 and still beat me. All the while he laughed and teased me. As you might imagine, I did not enjoy competing when I was totally out of my element and helpless. By the end my stomach was in knots, and I silently vowed revenge.
At this time I had a shoulder injury that kept me from playing tennis, so I needed a project – something to work on. It so happened that at the end of my street there was a pool hall. Every day after work I stopped there and spent two hours clandestinely practicing pool. I bought a book by Mosconi, a legendary pool champion, and learned about proper technique. I was focused and diligent. After three months I had gotten pretty good. I could run four or five balls at a stretch and make almost any shot of medium difficulty. Although Larry was still better than me, I now felt ready for a rematch and an ambush.
Another friendly dinner was scheduled at the Nagler home, and afterward I suggested a little pool. To make it interesting I proposed that Larry again spot me 20 balls but that we place a few dollars wager on the outcome. He agreed with a chuckle and a superior look. But he was not chuckling quite so much when I won that game with my new controlled and deliberate style. The next game he spotted me fifteen balls, and I won again. Now I was smiling, and Larry was getting a little hot. (Hyper-competitive as he is, Larry is not a happy loser.) He gave me a ten ball spot in the third game, and I won it with a smirk on my face deliberately designed to rub my victory in. By this time Larry was frustrated beyond endurance. I quit and demanded immediate payment. With our wives looking on in disbelief and Larry straining to control his temper, he said he would be happy to pay, but first I would have to fight him on the living room floor for the money. (Rather immature for a 30 year old, established attorney, don’t you think? And what a sore loser!) Of course this type of drive, when channeled properly, provides a tremendous competitive advantage, and Larry doesn’t like losing law cases any more than he likes losing athletic contests. (Larry, by the way, had won the NCAA singles tennis championships as a sophomore and had played on the UCLA basketball team for legendary coach, John Wooden.)
This same personality profile has been found by other scientists in other groups of people. For example, Drs. Rosenman and Friedman, in their work on the relationship between temperament and heart disease, described the famous “Type A” personality which was virtually identical to the personality profile I found in many championship tennis players. “Type A” individuals are aggressive, anxious, goal and achievement oriented, have difficulty relaxing, and have a layer of antagonism and aggressiveness towards other people smoldering just below the surface. (Sounds a lot like Connors and McEnroe) Particularly interesting was that they noted a large number of successful business executives among the Type A individuals that they interviewed, suggesting that similar types of people tend to be successful in both business and sport.
Along these lines, I was talking with Richard Riordan (before he became the mayor of Los Angeles), who was an attorney, a successful businessman, and an extremely clever investor in emerging companies. I asked him if he could identify any particular trait or traits that were common to the leading business executives that he knew. Almost without a pause he replied, “Paranoia.” He said this keeps them driven, alert, and one jump ahead of the competition. And Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel, agreed with Riordan. His stated mantra was, “Only the paranoid survive.”
So a measure of paranoia can be useful to some people in achieving their goals, both in tennis and elsewhere. But it is obviously a matter of degree, and it may not be healthy in one’s personal life. Too much of it can lead to the men in the “white coats” instead competing against the men in the white shorts.