Monday, July 18, 2005

Lance Armstrong: Mental Toughness

A real skinny Texas dude rides a bike through the Pyrennes in the Tour de France as this post is written. He will likely win. Again. For the 7th time. He will likely win the most grueling sporting event that exists.

Most of us, by comparison are big losers. If we have any awareness of our talents (a minimum start to greatness), we give up developing them for a variety of reasons. We are tired. We are spread thin. We can't make money at our gift. We stink on the playing field. (It's unfortunate when our only talent is lackluster when tested against other peoples talents.)

We lack the single-mindedness needed to succeed. We lack the genetic gifts to succeed (Armstrong is gifted with lung capacity and muscle recovery that other athletes, even professional ones, just don't have).

That single-mindedness thing is what interests me, though. On some level, it is a little weird to love baseball (I went to High School with Johnny Smoltz, the Braves pitcher and he would pitch against his garage over and over and over and over again in rain, snow, whatever. He didn't date, really. I wondered if he'd ever get married, he was so driven and focused.), or basketball, or bicycling, or computers (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are a little weird), or anything so seemingly meaningless in the big scheme of life that much.

But these guys do.

Another group of people are single-minded and usually have one area that they "stim" on: autistic people. What I wonder, is how are autistic people different than high achievers?

First, autistic people don't usually focus on socially relevent activities. They focus on spinning plates or memorizing bus schedules or knowing every make and model of train.

Second, autistic people have difficulty communicating their knowledge to others. Temple Grandin, is a notable exception. Through her own need to calm down internally, she created a machine that calmed her down and transferred that knowledge to cattle. Her ability to do this depended on communication and executive functioning.

Third, autistic people have little interest in or ability to integrate other people into their talent focus.

For example, Steve Jobs saw a need, had the ability to put something together and recruited help to bring his computer system to the world. Bill Gates has Steve Ballmer. Michael Jordon (although not originally) saw the need to help other people become better, thus making him a better player. Johnny Smoltz has a team. Sure he's the lone gun pitching, but he receives encouragement from a catcher, input from a coach and can integrate it.

And that crazy cat, Lance Armstrong. He is single-minded for sure. He too has a team and a coach and an emotional support system. His passion and dedication inspire others. His excellence keeps them supporting him when his love for the bike seems like a psychological dysfunction.

Is Lance Armstrong autistic? No, but it is interesting that achievement and pathology can look so similar. Link
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