When exceptional talent goes over the edge

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The Independent Online
When the most naturally gifted cricketer in the world expresses a desire not to play cricket - as Brian Lara has this week - one has to wonder whether too much talent can be a bad thing.

Lara is far from the first outstanding sporting figure to absent himself from his area of excellence, and will certainly not be the last. George Best, whose footballing ability set him apart from his fellow professionals, is perhaps the archetypal example here. However, over the years, others have come to grief for a variety of reasons - Mike Tyson in boxing, Jennifer Capriati in tennis, the multiple world record holder Henry Rono in athletics.

"The idea that people reach a certain point and then lose interest is a big area of study," Bruce Hale, an American sports psychologist based at the University of Stafford, said. "Stress and high-level competition begin to get to them.

"Many outstanding sportsmen and women are coddled and given special privileges, and many of them may develop the idea 'Hey, I'm God's gift to the world. All I have to do is turn up and perform and everything will be fine.' But sooner or later reality will strike. They are going to run into crises."

One of the most profound crises for the high achiever may be the height of the achievement itself, according to Jonathan Zneimer, a member of the British Olympic Association's psychology advisory group.

"The usual motivating factors for sporting performers are to demonstrate ability and gain social approval. But elite performers such as Lara go beyond those needs and focus on the mastery of what they are doing.

"Lara is obviously extra-talented and has established complete mastery in one area. So you have to ask - what's left for him to do? Where do his next goals lie? If you had talked to him a couple of years ago he would no doubt have said that Garfield Sobers' scoring record was one of them - but now he has that."

Another problematic factor for the super-talented sporting figure comes into play when there is a shift in their motivation for continuing success.

"Lara, for instance, has come into a lot of money relatively quickly," Zneimer said. "That represents a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation. While cricket is well and truly under his control, maybe the financial factor is causing him to be disturbed."

Zneimer speculates that Capriati's fall from grace may have been influenced by a similar shift. "When she was just playing the game she became successful because of her natural talents, but then she had to think about financial concerns, and parental concerns, and coaching concerns. It became too much."

The clear imperative in such cases is to maintain a balance between the sporting and non-sporting life. Perhaps Lara's time out is simply based in a desire to redress that balance, but it is not an easy thing to do, and sporting organisations are increasingly seeking to offer support in this area.

The US Olympic Committee, for example, is building support mechanisms into many of its sports to help competitors with mental as well as physical preparation.

In this country, the British Olympic Association has established a scheme entitled Planning for Success which involves a group of former top-level performers, such as the Olympic swimming gold medallist Adrian Moorhouse and Olympic sailing champion Mike McIntyre, addressing national squads.

One of the main elements of the course confronts the motivational side, as John Limna, from the BOA technical department, explained. "We stress the need to balance sporting commitment with the rest of life. It is not strictly a time balance, but a matter of becoming a whole person. You must not forget that there is more to life out there."

Paradoxically, young people who get the very best out of themselves in sporting arenas are often unable to connect that with the rest of their life.

"I think a lot of athletes don't realise that they have developed some very good life skills in their sport," Hale said. "They forget this when it comes to using them in real life. It is scary sometimes to go into new areas where you are not good. But it is a matter of making them aware of their capabilities."

More than one sports psychologist has praised the efforts of Manchester United's manager, Alex Ferguson, to prevent the extraordinary talents of Ryan Giggs from being compromised by undue media attention and commercial obligation. However, Ferguson has had to be careful he does not provoke his young player into an undesirable reaction. When the rules were relaxed a little last year, Giggs lost his form at the same time as he found a higher media profile.

Finding the correct balance in a sporting life is not easy, especially for those of extreme ability. Perhaps American Football teams have the right idea - they appoint their own priests.