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Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Athletes

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Professional athletes stand out among the rest of the population due to their incredible dedication to their chosen sport. Some have argued that narcissistic personality disorder is more prevalent in collegiate and professional athletes, as many traits of narcissistic personality disorder also appear in the mindset of dedicated, professional athletes. This is a sample research paper that goes into depth regarding the relationship between NPD and professional athletes. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder in athletes

There has been a fair amount of speculation regarding the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder among athletes. Some have argued the connection between athletes and narcissism is due to the fact an individual with narcissistic personality disorder display many of the personality traits and characteristics of athletes. A narcissist can be male or female, and they see themselves as highly important, deserving of special treatment and recognition. These traits, in particular, have also been associated with both collegiate and professional athletes.

However, narcissists also often display an overall inability to feel empathy and a complete lack of regard for other people. While these traits may be attributed to some athletes, it is unclear whether there is a disproportionate amount of narcissists in athletics than not in athletics. Based on the available research, it is highly probably that there is a higher proportion of athlete narcissists than non-athlete narcissists. 

Narcissism in collegiate and professional athletes 

When discussing the possibility of narcissistic personality disorder in athletes, the research pertains specifically to collegiate and professional level athletes. According to Leonard Polakiewicz, author of Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Princess’: Diagnosis – Narcissistic Personality Disorder (2007),

"symptoms of narcissism may emerge during childhood or adolescence. However, the negative consequences of narcissism may not be fully revealed until early adulthood" (Polakiewicz, 2007).

It is difficult to diagnosis personality disorders such as narcissism in children and adolescents because many of the features of narcissism are comparable to normal traits of an immature child or adolescent, and has traits similar to ADD, or ADHD in children. For example, one of the diagnosable characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder is “the individual has a grandiose sense of self-importance” which is a common characteristic found in adolescence. Despite the inability to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder in childhood and adolescence, research has revealed factors that positively and negatively effect the development of narcissism in young adults.

According to Ibrahim Gungor, Halil Eksi, and Osman Aricak, authors of Value Preferences Predicting Narcissistic Personality Traits in Young Adults (2012),

"power, success, hedonism and excitation have a positive effect on the develop of narcissism. Grungor, Eksi, and Aricak came to this conclusion after utilizing the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory” and the “Schwartz’s Value Scale” to collect data from 223 young people "(2012).

Their research added to what is currently understood about narcissism by revealing indicating factors to watch for in children. Applying this information to student athletes, the early success in sports aids in the development of narcissism in collegiate and professional athletes. This is particularly true when student athletes receive a high level of attention and praise from their athletic performances. 

Although narcissistic personality disorder is more prevalent in males, collegiate and professional athletes displaying narcissistic personality disorder may be male or female. Despite this, the majority of the research on narcissism and narcissism in athletes has been conducted primarily on males. The lack of research on female athletes makes the ability to connect narcissism and female athletes nearly impossible.

Leonard Polakiewicz's article, is the only article found that specifically addresses the diagnosis of narcissism in females. Although it is fair to say, both female and male athletes may be more prone to narcissism, this study will address male athletes, due to the inadequate information on female athletes and females with narcissistic personality disorder. 

Demographics of concern for narcissism

They age range of athletes being considered from 18 on up. Although there is no maximum age for displays of narcissism in athletes, research has found that borderline narcissistic personality disorder does diminish with age. According to Kubartch et al, authors of, Measurement non-invariance of DSM-IV narcissistic personality disorder criteria across age and sex in a population-based sample of Norwegian twins (2010),

"older participants required a higher baseline level of narcissism. According to their research, individuals with narcissistic personality disorder can “grow out’ of their symptoms such as feelings of grandiosity, preoccupation with fantasies, and lack of empathy through the development of life experiences and positive relationships "(Kubartach et al., 2010).

Younger adult participants display a high level of these symptoms regardless of their level of narcissistic personality disorder, while older participants required a higher level of narcissistic personality disorder in order to maintain the symptoms over time. The age range of narcissistic behavior also correlates with the age range of most athletes. Due to the extreme physical nature of professional sports, there are not many professional athletes that continue playing into their 40s and 50s. 

The understanding and diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder is difficult, to say the least, which affects the ability to solid determine how many people suffer from the disorder. According to Cheryl Nelson, author of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Not Even a Diagnosis in 2013, despite recent changes in the DSM diagnosis guide, narcissists display very clear and definable symptoms.

According to Nelson,

"narcissists, need constant attention and admiration, they are preoccupied with delusions of “unlimited success, power, brilliance or ideal love” (2013).

The change Nelson is referring to in her article is the absence of narcissistic personality disorder as an official diagnosis. This change makes an already difficult diagnosis even harder because physicians will need to attribute the symptoms to another personality disorder, which may or may not truly fit the situation. 

The difficulty in diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder has been solidly examined by Kernberg and Yeomans in their article,

“Borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder: Practical differential diagnosis” (2013).

Kernberg and Yeomans explore why narcissism may be difficult to diagnose, as well as what features differentiate narcissism from other personality disorders. According to Kernberg and Yeomans,

“Erroneous diagnostic conclusions have frequently been reached, particularly in the case of patients with strong negativistic features, who refuse or are unable to provide adequate information about themselves” (2013).

Essentially, individuals with narcissism are more inclined to lie about themselves because preserving the image they wish to maintain controls their thinking. They are unable to admit to things that may cause others to view them negatively. Individuals with borderline narcissistic personality disorder will

“mask fragmentation and weakness under a brittle and fragile grandiose self that they present to the world” (Kernberg & Yeomans, 2013).

Although individuals with severe narcissist personality disorder may lie about themselves, they will be unable to hide their actions. Their disorder will cause them to be impulsive, create chaos within al their relationships, and be unable to maintain an intimate relationship or hold down a job (Kernberg & Yeomans, 2013). There are some features that Kernberg and Yeomans assert differential narcissistic personality disorder.

These include difficulty or inability to accept dependant relationships and

“extreme fluctuations between feelings of inferiority and failure with a sense of superiority and grandiosity” (Kernberg & Yeomans, 2013).

However, this assertion is debatable since these “differentiating” factors can also be attributed to antisocial personality disorder and bipolar personality disorder. 

Nine primary characteristics of narcissists

Although narcissistic personality disorder has been described in many different ways by the available research, the official diagnosis, prior to being removed from the DSM, involved observable displays of five of the following nine characteristics. 

  1. the individual has a grandiose sense of self-importance;
  2. the individual is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success;
  3. the individual believes he/she is special and unique;
  4. the individual requires excessive admiration;
  5. the individual has a sense of entitlement;
  6. the individual is interpersonally exploitative;
  7. the individual lacks empathy;
  8. the individual is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her; and
  9. the individual shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes (Polakieaicz, 2007). 

These are the official features of narcissistic personality disorder, as well as the characteristics being assigned to collegiate and professional athletes by those suggesting a higher proportion of narcissists in collegiate and professional athletics than not. 

The difficulty in diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder also makes it difficult to equate narcissism with athletes. Greg Jayne, a sports editor for The Columbian, made waves in 2012 when he asserted,

“the be great, particularly in an individual sport and in an age of saturation media coverage, an extreme level of self-centeredness is a prerequisite” (Jayne, 2012).

In his article, he goes on to explain that essentially all great athletes are also narcissists, and that is they were not narcissist, they would likely also not be great athletes.

“The greatest athletes, the ones who have a pathological need for domination, have something in their DNA that goes beyond their physical gifts and helps them transcend their sport” (Jayne, 2012).

He sites Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordon, Barry Bonds, and Tiger Woods as examples within his argument. 

Mental disorders in athletes

When of the many people who dispute Jayne’s assertions was Kirk Mango, writer for Chicago Now. Mango, author of Is Narcissism Simply Part of Being a Great Athlete, a “Star? (2012), disagrees with Jayne by citing multiple athletes, who have become known for their generosity and charitable work. Although charitable work may be a testament to their good nature, it could also be a display of their narcissism.

As stated earlier, narcissists are obsessed with how they are viewed by the world. For some, this may be a view of them as genuinely good people. Additionally, being a charitable person gains a great deal of positive media attention, which would feed into the needs of a narcissist. Although this may not be the case, it does challenge the validity of Mango’s argument. Mango also challenges Jayne’s inclusion of former boxing champion, Muhammad Ali as a narcissist.

Mango asserts that because Ali was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he could not be a narcissist. However, Ali also became famous for his grandiose and self-inflating comments, such as

“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was” and “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark”

It is unclear whether Ali was a narcissist or not, however, arguing that he was or was not based on isolated comments or situations is inefficient and creates an invalid argument. It is highly possible that Ali displayed borderline narcissism, which would be supported by the fact his narcissistic behavior diminished with age. 

Narcissistic athletes and performance

Although Jayne did not offer effective or valid arguments in favor of great athletes needing to be narcissists, he may be closer to the truth. According to research recently published by Bangor University’s Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance (IPEP), narcissistic athletes will perform better and even thrive in stressful situations (Evans, 2012).

This supports the idea that great success within sports is more about personality that athletic ability and it would explain why some athletes seem more likely to “choke” under high pressure situations than others. Dr. Ross Roberts, a lecturer at IPEP, stated,

“We think the reason why narcissists thrive in these stressful situations is because when they receive excel under these circumstances; they receive the admiration and adulation that they crave” (Evans, 2012).

This also explains why some of the greatest athletes were either in individual sports or not seen as “team players.” A narcissist would be unable to share the glory of the victory. Additionally, a narcissist athlete will be more likely to blame failures on other members of the team or other external factors. Whether the level of narcissism is high or borderline, most of the great athletes display narcissistic characteristics. 

Some have argued the perception of athletes as narcissist is simply a stereotype enforced by the media. Willie Elman and Stuart McKelvie sought to verify whether the association was a stereotype of a reality. They published their findings in their article, Narcissism in Football Players: Stereotype or Reality? (2003). In their study, they studied the level of narcissism in collegiate football players, collegiate athletes in other sports, as well as the perception of narcissism in football players by non-athlete students.

They found there was a higher level of narcissism in football players than collegiate athletes in other sports. However, they also found that the level of narcissism in the football players was lower than the perceived narcissism by the non-athlete students (Elman & McKelvie, 2003). In their study, the non-athlete students described the collegiate athletes as acting superior, entitled, and self-important. While this research suggests that the level of narcissism is a stereotype, the determination of narcissism in the athletes was based on self-reported data. Previous research has already determined that narcissists are likely to lie about their behavior in order to maintain their image. It is distinctly possible that the determined levels of narcissism are not completely accurate due to misreported data. 

Connection Between Narcissism and Sexual Aggression

There have also been studies done on the connection between narcissist personality disorder and sexual aggression. Similarly to other areas of research on narcissism, the answer to this research question is dependant on the level of narcissism and the narcissistic characteristics being displayed. Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Brian Enjaian, and Lauren Essa, authors iof The Role of Narcissistic Personality Features in Sexual Aggression (2013), conducted a study consisting of 170 male undergraduates on narcissistic features and sexual aggression.

Of the 170 males, 41 admitted to sexual aggressive behavior but not rape, 3 admitted to attempted rape, and 14 admitted to rape. These results are consistent with other research in the area of sexual aggression. When comparing the results on sexual aggressive behavior with their results on narcissistic features, they found that while features such as entitlement and willingness to exploit were positively associated with sexual aggression, grandiosity was negatively associated with sexual aggression (Zeigler-Hill, Enjaian, & Essa, 2013).

This, in part, may be attributed to the fact that those featuring grandiosity are more concerned with image and appearances that those highly drawn to exploiting others. The connections between narcissistic features and sexual aggression can also be used to make connections between athletes and narcissism. Although sexually aggressive behavior may not dominate athletes, the repeated and frequent incidents of sexual aggression among athletes, both collegiate and professional, can not be denied. In addition to sexually aggressive behavior, the levels of promiscuity among many athletes can be attributed to their sense of entitlement. 

Defense Mechanism?

Research also suggests that the features of narcissistic personality disorder are actually defense mechanism brought on by the underlying personality disorder. J. Perry, Michelle Presnick, and Trevor Olson, authors of Defense Mechanisms in Schizotypal, Borderline, Antisocial, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders (2013), define defense mechanisms as

“the automatic psychological responses that individuals use in response to anxiety and internal or external stress and conflict.”

Through their research, they sought to identify the defense mechanisms that are most highly associated with specific personality disorders. The specific defenses they were able to associate with narcissistic personality disorder were

“omnipotence, idealization, devaluation, denial, rationalization, fantasy, and splitting”. Although not a direct association, they also found a positive association between narcissistic personality disorder and “sublimation, intellectualization, dissociation, projection, projective identification and acting out” (Perry, Presnick & Olson, 2013).

These defense mechanism add to the research available on a narcissist response to stress, pressure, criticism, and rejection. These are the types of things that cause them to act out and prominently display the features of narcissism. Although research has found that this can be positive in athletes because it makes them excel in their sport, it is also what leads to sexual aggression and other highly negative behaviors. 

Although there is no clear conclusion that narcissistic personality disorder is more prominent in athletes than non-athletes, the available research is makes the conclusion highly suggestible. Although being an athlete does not lead to or cause narcissism, it appears that those inclined to narcissistic features are more likely to go into athletics. The research on narcissism is clear that narcissists crave attention and admiration from others.

They need to feel superior and overall highly important. Even at a young age, sports provide that needed level of attention. Children prone to narcissistic behavior will be drawn to excelling in sports for increased attention. The cycle of excelling in sports and getting more attention does not end. The better an athlete becomes, the more attention he or she receives. This cycle is what drives many narcissists into collegiate and professional athletics.

Conclusions 

A more definitive answer may be found by conducting research on current and past professional athletes to determine the levels of narcissism found. This research would need to take into consideration both self-reported data, as well as observable behavior in order to get an accurate assessment. Once a proportion of athletes displaying narcissism is determined, that percentage could then be compared to the overall percentage of society displaying narcissistic features.

Although the lack of diagnoses and the prevalence of misdiagnosis continue to prevent accurate reporting, this would provide a more accurate conclusion regarding the prevalence of narcissism in athletes, opposed to non-athletes. This would add to the overall research on personality disorders by providing a specific population to be studied. Additionally, being able to further study how narcissism is related to athletic success could add to the information on narcissism treatment.

Helping individuals channel their energy into something positive may ward off the negative consequences of narcissism, at least for a period of time. For those with borderline narcissism, the features would diminish with age, which would work in favor of more targeted treatment. Despite the possibilities, it is unlikely that those suffering from severe narcissistic personality disorder would be helped by any level of treatment. 

References

Elman, W., & McKlevie, S. (2003). Narcissism in Football Players: Stereotype or Reality? . Athletic Insight, 5(1), 38-46. Retrieved March 26, 2013, from http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol5Iss1/NarcissismPDF.pdf

Evans, G. (2012, May 2). Narcissism 'boosts' athletes' performance, study finds. WalesOnline - Welsh news, sports, politics, business, jobs and lifestyle in Wales. Retrieved March 27, 2013, from http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2012/05/02/narcissism-boosts-athletes-performance-study-finds-91466-30880237/

Gungor, I., Eksi, H., & Aricak, O. (2012). Value Preferences Predicting Narcissistic Personality Traits in Young Adults. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 12(2), 1281-1290.

Jayne, G. (2012, April 1). Jayne: Narcissism runs in sports stars | The Columbian. The Columbian - Serving Clark County, Washington | The Columbian. Retrieved March 27, 2013, from http://www.columbian.com/news/2012/apr/01/narcissism-runs-in-sports-stars/

Kernberg, O., & Yeomans, F. (2013). Borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder: Practical differential diagnosis. Bulletin of the Menniger Clinic, 77(1), 1-23.

Kubarych, T., Aggen, S., Kendler, K., Torgersen, S., Reichborn-Kjennerud, T., & Neale, M. (2010). Measurement non-invariance of DSM-IV narcissistic personality disorder criteria across age and sex in a population based sample of Norwegian twins. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 19(3), 156-166.

Mango, K. (2012, April 6). Is Narcissism Simply Part of Being a Great Athlete, a “Star?” | The Athlete's Sports Experience: Making A Difference. Latest and greatest from Chicagoans | ChicagoNow. Retrieved March 27, 2013, from http://www.chicagonow.com/the-athletes-sports-experience-making-a-difference/2012/04/is-narcissism-simply-part-of-being-a-great-athlete-a-%E2%80%9Cstar%E2%80%9D/

Nelson, C. (2013). Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Not Even a Diagnosis in 2013!. The Journal of Psychohistory, 40(4), 293-305.

Perry, J., Presnick, M., & Olson, T. (2013). Defense Mechanisms in Schizotypal, Borderline, Antisocial, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders. Psychiatry, 76(1), 32-52.

Polakiewicz, L. (2007). Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Princess’: Diagnosis – Narcissistic Personality Disorder. ASEES, 21(1-2), 55-71.

Zeigler-Hill, V., Enjaian, B., & Essa, L. (2013). The Role of Narcissistic Personality Features in Sexual Aggression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 32(2), 186-199.

 
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