The Dark Side of Elite Athletes

Originally published: November 12, 2015

I got into swimming when I was very young. I've done swim teams and had a few stints in masters programs. For the past two years I was swimming about 3-4 times a week, but have paused since moving to Brooklyn earlier this year.

Naturally Michael Phelps is an inspiration. I was lucky enough to see him last year in Irvine California as he embarked on his comeback trail to Rio 2016.

As I read this week's SI article about Phelps's struggles outside the pool, the DUIs, his rehabilitation, it was a side of Phelps I had not heard of.

And yet it sounded so familiar. I've heard this story play out before with elite athletes.

Tim Grover, CEO of Attack Athletics, is an athletic trainer who prepares elite athletes mentally and physically to excel in their sport. His NBA clients include Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade. Grover is the author of "Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable".

Grover's book is focused on a certain kind of individual. A person he calls a "cleaner". He describes a cleaner as:

The most intense and driven competitor imaginable. You refuse limitations. You quietly and forcefully do whatever it takes to get what you want. You understand the insatiable addiction to success; it defines your entire life.

He takes things a step further. He argues that every cleaner has a "dark side":

Truly relentless people—the Cleaners—are predators, with dark sides that refuse to be taught to be good. And whether you know it or not, you do have a dark side. Use it well and it can be your greatest gift. If you’re aiming to be the best at what you do, you can’t worry about whether your actions will upset other people, or what they’ll think of you. We’re taking all the emotion out of this, and doing whatever it takes to get to where you want to be. Selfish? Probably. Egocentric? Definitely.

If channeled properly, it can be a powerful thing. Kobe Bryant talks about this in his documentary. But the dark side, to put it bluntly, has a dark side. Michael Jordan's gambling addiction? Dark side. Tiger Woods's involvement with many different women? Dark side.

Michael Phelps's DUIs and reckless behavior? Dark side.

Could a Phelps, a Jordan, a Bryant reach the peak had they not channeled their dark side? Do we need to channel our dark side in order to be the best we can be? If you think Grover is on to something here, that we all have a dark side we can use, we should first learn to control it before it consume us.