20 December 2018

Mental Myth: The Curious Link Between Mental Strength & Psychopathy

By Daniel Gallan

Paddy Upton has never been one to mince his words. The self-proclaimed ‘maverick’ relishes in tearing up scripts and casting aside long held notions - that are gospel to most elite athletes and coaches.

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With a Cricket World Cup winner’s medal back home (which he secured as Gary Kirsten’s assistant coach during India’s triumph in 2011) as well as a Big Bash League victory as head coach of the Sydney Thunder in 2015, Upton backs up his controversial talk with an impressive walk. One particular ubiquitous concept draws extra ire from Upton.

“I contend that ‘mental toughness’ is like Batman and Superman,” he says. “We all know them but they’re not real and don’t actually exist.”

“Erroneous!” Come the audible cries of mental gurus and hard-nosed coaches who make a living on instilling a granite-like fortitude in athletes, turning them into unbreakable automatons when plunged into high-pressure situations.

Not according to Upton: “In a review of over thirty published academic papers on mental toughness, involving forty-four world-class researchers, there is no agreement on the definition of mental toughness. Sports psychologists cannot agree on what mental toughness is. In trying to define this concept they broke it down into subcomponents like ‘grit’, ‘resilience’, ‘focus’, ‘emotional and mental control’, ‘hardness’ and so on. Collectively, those thirty plus papers present as many as seventy-five subcomponents that supposedly make up mental toughness.”

In his upcoming, aptly named, book ‘The Barefoot Coach’, set for release in March next year, Upton dedicates an entire chapter to what he calls the ‘myth of mental toughness'. Whether he believes in its existence or not, this is a concept that clearly gets him thinking.


After poring over more than thirty academic papers from over forty-four researchers studying the concept of ‘mental toughness’ - one that examined 160 multi-sport athletes, one with 12 English cricketers, another with eight Olympic champions - Upton identified common threads that linked ‘mentally tough’ athletes with one another.

Traits like self-belief, emotional control, clear thinking under pressure, spotting a weakness in opponents, performing well under chaotic pressure and ruthlessly pursuing goals expectedly came up with regularity. These variables make sense when one contemplates what is believed to mean, “mentally tough’. For Upton, however, these traits bring to mind another social-outlying group.

“Most definitions - and the papers presented as many as seventy-five subcomponents - of mental toughness have led most coach and players to falsely believe in its existence,” Upton explains.“ One could easily ascribe these same traits to psychopaths - with the addition of compulsive lying, which the elite athletes I have worked do not demonstrate.”

Upton continues: “What if the academics who studied mental toughness amongst elite athletes might, unknowingly, have unearthed their psychopathic traits and then be prescribing them as a model of mental toughness?” Upton muses. “Barring only one or two, the traits are the same.”

The point of raising psychopaths is not to draw a tenuous link between Hannibal Lecter and Lionel Messi. Rather, Upton uses this comparison to prove the fragility of the definition of mental toughness.

This may sit uneasy with those of us who buy into the idea that our sports heroes are worthy of worship, but Upton points us to disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong as exhibit A in the case against that theory.

Upton references Professor Clive Body from Middlesex University who suggests that one in twenty managers in corporate America is a psychopath, or, what he terms a ‘corporate psychopath’ because they thrive in business environments.

In industries like media, the legal fraternity, finance, banking and politics, Boddy suggests one in five top executives or CEOs are psychopaths. Is it such a stretch to believe indomitable world champions are not, on a level, also psychopaths?

Upton explains: “If this is the first time you’ve encountered the concept of corporate psychopaths, you may be struggling to draw the dots between a serial killer and successful businessmen and athletes. The only difference between a corporate [or sporting] psychopath and Hannibal Lecter [from the Silence of the Lambs film] and Co - who torture animals as children and end up as jailed serial killers as adults, is their propensity for violence.”

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That’s a bold claim and the complexities of what propels an individual down such a dark path are beyond our pay grade, but Upton certainly makes an interesting point. Perhaps a better comparison is the one Upton makes later in the chapter:

“What sports psychologists, coaches, parents and players are prescribing as a model of mental toughness, is equally likely to be the success producing traits of highly successful and highly functioning psychopaths.”

Again, Upton cautions against glib comparisons that may suggest it takes a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy before an athlete can climb to the top of his or her field. What Upton is doing is challenging generational myths that have been mistakenly taken as gospel.

“I honestly believe that we should do away with the concept of mental toughness and replace it with something that is more real and relevant to the majority of people,” Upton says. “It has to be authentic to the individual and something they can relate to.”

This is why Upton refuses to get wrapped up in binaries. His coaching methods are fluid and offer multiple avenues towards one’s desired goal. With this logic, he further chips away at the ingrained idea surrounding mental toughness.

“It’s sad that someone is either mentally tough or not. If they’re not mentally tough then they’re weak or fragile. This is how we label athletes who make mistakes under pressure. The overwhelming majority of players lack confidence, have insecurities, doubts and vulnerabilities. So do most of us. We’re human and this is normal. Let’s keep it real!”

The ‘Barefoot Coach’ certainly does that. His live presentations are whirlwinds of energy and enthusiasm and leave the audience hanging on every word. He is also challenging. A tête-à-tête with Paddy Upton can leave you questioning particular concepts that you once thought of as concrete.


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