Double-Edged Swords

Staying on the subject of Lance Armstrong, I listened to the Joe Rogan podcast on the recommendation of regular commenter William of Ockham in the comments of this post, where I wrote:

By all accounts, it sounds as though Armstrong was a nasty, bullying, vindictive piece of work. This is why, when he fell from grace, few people were willing to stand up for him and many delighted in his comeuppance. Had he simply been a cyclist who doped along with everyone else and got caught, he’d have had a good chance of re-ingratiating himself with the fans and public.

In the podcast, Armstrong deals with the above charge in a way which makes perfect sense, at least to me. He says the attitude required to win at all costs when on the bike can be all-consuming; he says in order to beat a competitor he will need to hate the guy, and find something to hate him for, even if he actually quite likes him. He said the problem is, when you get off the bike after the race, you need to remind yourself you don’t actually hate him. He and Rogan discuss the theory that top-level performers are often slightly mad, and come to the agreement there is probably some truth to it. Armstrong said his ruthless, take-no-prisoners attitude served him brilliantly when on the bike, but was his downfall when he applied it to the doping accusations and other areas of his non-racing life.

I can understand this, and I expect a similar thing happened with Tiger Woods who’s catastrophic fall from the pinnacle of golf was initiated by his wife finding out about his extra-marital affairs, and her subsequent reaction. Here’s a recent article on Tiger’s early years:

Benedict, a New York Times bestselling author, and Keteyian, an 11-time Emmy Award winning CBS contributor, write that Tiger’s relationship with his father is responsible for his astonishing success – but also laid the roots for his ruin.

Earl subjected his son to psychological warfare in his youth and called him a ‘little n*****’ during brutal training sessions to improve his golf game.

But another lesson that Earl appears to have taught his son was about how to behave around women.

According to the book,  Earl’s womanizing was ‘well known’ to his family and that Tiger would break down in tears on the phone to friends talking about how he cheated on Kultida, his mother.

Earl’s habits included drinking, smoking and pornography that ‘drove a wedge between him and his family’.

So you have a highly talented kid driven incredibly hard to succeed by his father and subjected to forms of abuse which he channels into his sport. As a recipe for becoming one of the greatest golfers of all time it obviously worked wonders, but left him utterly unable to manage when things started to fall apart around him. Landing in a situation where the “work doubly hard and win at all costs” mentality is no use and only makes things worse, like Armstrong he found that’s all he knew.

I can relate to this. A few years back I went on a course entitled Managing Personal Relations and one of the things I learned about myself is the talents which make me a half-decent project engineer are ill-applied to personal relationships. Engineering is a subject which deals mostly with facts, logic and demonstrations of both. If you want to win an argument in the engineering world, you must overcome the opposition with superior facts and logic, demonstrated simply. Coupled with this, you often need to drive results by applying bone-headed determination and sheer force of will. Both are appalling ways to try to resolve personal, human issues which you face either at work or outside, and the training course was designed firstly to show where we were going wrong, and secondly to fix them and offer alternatives. It was probably the best training course I’ve done, and it made me realise my dealings with people needed to change as browbeating people into seeing my superior logic was not going to result in successful relationships – especially where women are concerned!

I expect, just as STEM folk have to learn to deal with non-STEM folk in order to maintain good relations, top-level sportsmen have to adjust their attitudes when not competing. I imagine those who participate in the more individualistic sports, like cycling and golf, find this harder than pure team players.

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28 thoughts on “Double-Edged Swords

  1. If you have the free time, listening to Patrice O’Neal talk about Tiger Woods on the old Opie & Anthony show is interesting. (There are numerous clips, since they discussed it quite a lot.) I’m less impressed with O’Neal’s psychological acumen than I used to be, but even if he’s talking shit, he’s still hilarious.

  2. I sometimes find I have a similar problem when it comes to disagreements over a subject I’m attached to – I’ll win the argument but won’t know when to stop until the other person is physically beginning to walk backwards away from me! Then I feel like a right pig headed bastard and have to find some way of self deprecating. I’m not even aggressive as such, I just tend to overwhelm with “…and another thing is…” type statements.

  3. I’m not even aggressive as such, I just tend to overwhelm with “…and another thing is…” type statements.

    Yes, exactly. One of the things I’ve learned recently is to accept others’ opinions about politics, etc. and not try to brow-beat them with “evidence”.

  4. Sometimes you can get people to stop emoting and start thinking by using the line “Look, this is just business.” Over the years, though, I have found no reliably successful way of dealing with those people who hate to have to cope with an unfamiliar idea. A rich vocabulary of derision is little help.

    My favourite example:

    “That can’t work.”

    “Why not?”

    “Because if it worked it would have been invented before.”

  5. In my head-hunting days, this was an issue that I had to confront frequently.

    The engineer’s idee fixe that, “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist”, served them extremely badly when it came to getting them on to the board. Then, what can’t be measured, is pretty much 80% of what is needed for success.

  6. The engineer’s idee fixe that, “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist”, served them extremely badly when it came to getting them on to the board. Then, what can’t be measured, is pretty much 80% of what is needed for success.

    Indeed, and one of the challenges I faced in writing my book was to describe the mechanism of a man’s emotions in a turbulent relationship. Why did he think or feel this way? What exactly was the issue? Breaking down the thought processes was a useful exercise in seeing where an engineering mindset and empathy/emotion run up against one another.

  7. True.

    It’s all about perceptions and understanding that other people’s perceptions are likely to be different to yours.

  8. It’s all about perceptions and understanding that other people’s perceptions are likely to be different to yours.

    Yup. Someone I knew who got on well with people said she always tried to see things from the other person’s point of view. She got on with people a lot better than I did, particularly at work. Then again, so would Attila the Hun.

  9. Back to Lance Armstrong – and I grant you that I did not listen to the interview nor do I know much about the background – but what you describe sounds very much like an arsehole trying to retrospectively justify bad behaviour.

    If you found his argument convincing, it probably just means that he is a sociopath.

  10. Hi MC,

    Listen or watch (it’s on YouTube) the interview.

    Tell me you wouldn’t enjoy a beer or ten with the guy.

    There’s a great free PDF on the internet called “on the folly of rewarding A while expecting B” that might amuse you.

  11. but what you describe sounds very much like an arsehole trying to retrospectively justify bad behaviour.

    That’s what I expected, yes. I was pleasantly surprised.

    If you found his argument convincing, it probably just means that he is a sociopath.

    It didn’t come across that way, he seemed to have genuinely reflected and took great pains to say he was explaining why things happened, rather than making excuses or seeking forgiveness. He continually said “I’m not justifying it, but this is why” and several times stopped Rogan from having too much sympathy for him.

  12. Nope, not buying it.

    There are focussed winners who I believe would be fun away from the sport despite their behaviour in it. John McEnroe say.

    But Lance Armstrong is a weapons grade cunt. I’ve been following cycling for a while and he is a bad person off the bike. Once someone has offended him he would hound them to the end.
    There a couple of people he largely ruined, nothing to do with competing, entirely personal.

    That he can now convince people he is otherwise just shows his powerful narcissism.

  13. By all accounts, it sounds as though Armstrong was a nasty, bullying, vindictive piece of work. This is why, when he fell from grace, few people were willing to stand up for him and many delighted in his comeuppance.

    Replace “Armstrong” with “the Australian cricket team” and you get an almost perfect match (apart from the later pronouns).

  14. But Lance Armstrong is a weapons grade cunt. I’ve been following cycling for a while and he is a bad person off the bike. Once someone has offended him he would hound them to the end.
    There a couple of people he largely ruined, nothing to do with competing, entirely personal.

    That’s precisely what he admits to in the podcast.

  15. Replace “Armstrong” with “the Australian cricket team” and you get an almost perfect match (apart from the later pronouns).

    Indeed, read the post it is taken from.

  16. I briefly had to cover sport when a dispute at newspaper where I worked meant non-journos (that was me) had to stand in as reporters.

    Enough of that: the meat of this tale is that as a temporary sport journo without any extra pay I had to speak to various local football managers. While one, a former England player of note, was about an unpleasant a person as you could wish for there was one former player managing another of the local teams who was quite the opposite. He was a nice bloke and while talking to him I had to ignore the fact that I had been told his ‘party-piece’ as a footballer was to jump with the opposing player and in his own words, “scrape my studs down the back of the opposing player’s leg” on the way down.

    So, yes, people can be decent away from their sporting profession and absolute bastards in their chosen game.

  17. “the talents which make me a half-decent project engineer are ill-applied to personal relationships. Engineering is a subject which deals mostly with facts, logic and demonstrations of both. If you want to win an argument in the engineering world, you must overcome the opposition with superior facts and logic, demonstrated simply.“

    Genuine question: why are you separating work from personal relationships here?

    Working with someone is a personal relationship, and, OK, you may not be fucking them, but the standards and expectations in your personal life-that you are truthful, have integrity and so on.

    Why the division?

  18. Genuine question: why are you separating work from personal relationships here?

    You need to go on the training course. 🙂

    It’s not so much I’m separating work and personal relationships, it’s that approaches which work well in an engineering environment don’t work so well in personal relationships (and certain professional ones).

    Example. An operator comes in all flustered and angry because his compressor has gone down again. It’s being run with the wrong filters, and he ordered the right ones ages ago but they’re not here. Solution: get the right damned filters.

    Now that evening, at home, the strap on your girlfriend’s handbag suddenly breaks and she bursts into tears. An engineer would go “No problem luv, I’ll fix it in a jiffy” but actually, it’s not the handbag that’s the problem, that’s just the trigger. 95% of the time something else is bothering her, and your job is *not* to offer solutions but the STFU and listen. Just listen. For an engineer, that’s not always easy.

    That’s one example, I have plenty more.

  19. That he can now convince people he is otherwise just shows his powerful narcissism.

    Or he may have had a legitimate come-to-Jesus moment. It happens; William Shatner is a good example.

  20. >That’s one example, I have plenty more.

    Actually, that’s all there is with women. All other examples will turn out to be, on closer examination, variations on this one thing.*

    *For legal purposes, let me state that this is a joke. A JOKE.**

    **If that does not suffice, then I’m gravely ill and I have a doctor’s note.

  21. ” … and your job is *not* to offer solutions but the STFU and listen. Just listen.”

    White Men Can’t Jump taught me this lesson over twenty years ago.

    Woody Harrelson and his girlfriend are in bed and she says she thirsty, Woody starts to get up and go get her a glass of water and then she says “See. if I’m thirsty. I don’t want a glass of water, I want you to sympathize. I want you to say, “Gloria, I too know what it feels like to be thirsty. I too have had a dry mouth.” I want you to connect with me through sharing and understanding the concept of dry mouthedness”

  22. That’s one option.

    The other option is “I’m not going to try to read your mind. If you’re upset about something, tell me what it is. But I don’t do shit tests.”

  23. @Tim

    Relations and one of the things I learned about myself is the talents which make me a half-decent project engineer are ill-applied to personal relationships. Engineering is a subject which deals mostly with facts, logic and demonstrations of both. If you want to win an argument in the engineering world, you must overcome the opposition with superior facts and logic, demonstrated simply.

    +1

    I have same problem. Using facts and logic, but not emotion.

    Case in point: Windrush – my mother says I’m heartless and she refuses to accept any facts, laws (eg Immigration Act 1973) or logic.

    Re: aircraft crew & panic. I don’t panic: assess problem, what can I do? If nothing then so be it for now until I work something out.

  24. “…and your job is *not* to offer solutions but the STFU and listen. Just listen. For an engineer, that’s not always easy.”

    And nobody has referenced ‘It’s Not About The Nail’?

    https://vimeo.com/66753575

    Disappointed, I am.

  25. In an early press conference Armstrong said that once he was doing a session in the mountains in snowy conditions. No-one else was. My thoughts were that he drives himself so hard he deserves to win.
    After the drug revelations, it is that of all the dopers he trained the hardest and so would win.
    But it all came crashing down as eventually it should.

  26. Sure Armstrong trained hard — well, you know he has told you that he did. You don’t actually know that he trained harder than everyone else. Other guys just don’t go on about it because it seems a trifle narcissist to say how much better you are than everyone else.

    And “they’re all on drugs so it evens out” simply isn’t true. Armstrong took more and better than the rest — he had a whole team built around protecting him that others didn’t have. He trained in secret too, where others don’t.

    Also his achievements as a cyclist is remarkably bare, because he basically only one race a year to win (that allowed more time to drug). Other great cyclists have Vueltas, Giros, the northern Classics etc. Armstrong rode not to win cycle races, but to win the Tour de France. Another reason those that love cycling have to dislike him.

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