Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dr. Joseph Ponterotto's Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer Provides a Balanced and Sensitive Look at a Tormented Genius

Dr. Joseph Ponterotto is a psychologist, a professor and the Coordinator of the Counseling Psychology Program at Fordham University's Graduate School of Education. His book A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer attempts to explain the psychological underpinnings of both Fischer's brilliant rise to the top of the chess world and of Fischer's sad descent into the seclusion and paranoia that characterized his "wilderness years," the tragic denouement that began soon after Fischer won the World Chess Championship in 1972 and did not end until his death in 2008.

A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer provides a detailed, well-researched analysis of Fischer's genius and of his mental illness while also offering suggestions for parents, teachers, guidance counselors and friends who are interacting with a highly gifted but deeply troubled person. Here is Dr. Ponterotto's definition of psychobiography (pp. 4-5): "More than a biographical sketch of 'who' a person was and 'what' the person accomplished in their particular field, psychobiography concerns itself with the 'why' of a person's behavior. What was the inner life, the psychology that drove the person to his or her thoughts, feelings and actions? What were the underlying mechanisms that made the person tick?" Dr. Ponterotto combines evidence from a variety of sources in order to place Fischer's thoughts and actions in the proper context and he repeatedly emphasizes that his conclusions must be considered provisional and tentative because he never met Fischer, let alone had the opportunity to treat him.

Dr. Ponterotto wisely rejects applying just one theoretical model to Fischer's life, noting that Dr. Reuben Fine's published analysis of Fischer is of limited value because it focuses exclusively on a Freudian interpretation without seriously considering any other explanations and/or theoretical models. One of the theoretical models that Dr. Ponterotto uses is the diathesis stress model, which suggests that mental illness develops in an individual due to a complex interaction between multiple genetic and environmental factors: in this model, genetics play a large role in determining how much stress a person can handle but even a person with a low threshold may escape the throes of mental illness if he has a strong enough support system around him to reduce his stressors to a manageable level. Dr. Ponterotto uses several other theoretical models to evaluate Fischer, including psychodynamic theory (focusing on the impact of early childhood experiences), family systems theory (examining the impact of family relationships), psychosocial development theory (evaluating a person's ability to perform "critical tasks over the life span") and multi-cultural theory (placing a person's life in the proper cultural and socioeconomic context).

The first several chapters of the book provide background information about chess, about Bobby Fischer's family history and about the methodologies of psychobiography. Dr. Ponterotto begins his psychological autopsy of Bobby Fischer with this statement (p. 87): "I believe Bobby had some genetic vulnerability to develop a mental illness, and that this predisposition in concert with early life trauma and the burden of relentless media pressure, coalesced into serious mental health concerns that called for early and ongoing psychological intervention." Even people who are very knowledgeable about chess in general and Bobby Fischer in particular may not realize how much evidence there is that several of Fischer's closest relatives suffered from some form of mental illness: his maternal grandmother spent the final three years of her life in a psychiatric hospital, his presumed biological father Paul Nemenyi displayed behavior that was, at the very least, extremely eccentric and his presumed half-brother Peter Nemenyi committed suicide; mental illness is most likely linked to both genetic and environmental factors--the classic "nature" versus "nurture" debate is applicable both to Fischer's prodigious abilities and to his mental illness--and there is good reason to believe that Fischer not only had a genetic predisposition to mental illness but that in his formative years he interacted with a mother who had psychological problems: the 900-plus page FBI file on Regina Fischer paints a very negative picture of her mental health, though Dr. Ponterotto--after interviewing several people who knew her personally--believes that FBI attitudes during the Cold War era were biased against her because of her Jewish background and presumed Communist sympathies. The Chicago Municipal Psychiatric Institute diagnosed Regina Fischer as having a "stilted (paranoid) personality, querulent [sic] but not psychotic." Dr. Ponterotto notes that this terminology would be considered "outdated" today but would perhaps be equivalent to what is now called Paranoid Personality Disorder; he emphasizes that she had good reason to feel suspicious--she was under active FBI surveillance for many years--and that there is no way to confirm whether or not the CMPI diagnosis was accurate. Various research studies estimate the heritability of the PPD trait to range from 21% to 66%, so if Regina suffered from PPD she may have passed along to Bobby a predisposition to develop the problem as well. Bobby's half-sister Joan showed no signs of mental illness but she likely had a different father and thus a different overall genetic makeup.

Bobby Fischer's early home life was very stressful. No father figure was present because Regina divorced Gerhardt Fischer--the father of Bobby's half-sister Joan--and she did not get along with Paul Nemenyi, who openly expressed concerns about Regina's fitness to raise Bobby and Joan. The Fischers moved at least 10 times before Bobby turned six years old. Bobby Fischer was expelled from school at age six for kicking his principal and he attended several schools before dropping out of Erasmus Hall High School at age 16 not long after attaining the Grandmaster title.

Fischer described his chess philosophy simply--"I am always on the attack"--but he unfortunately applied that same mindset in his personal life; it is well known that Fischer pushed away just about every family member and friend who ever became close with him, believing that each of those people had somehow betrayed him. This pattern began very early in Fischer's life; Fischer's mother took him to play chess with Dr. Reuben Fine, a world class player who was also an eminent psychiatrist, but when--after a few playing sessions--Dr. Fine asked Fischer about school Fischer furiously replied, "You have tricked me" and he refused to visit Dr. Fine again. Fischer remained angry at Dr. Fine for many years, Dr. Fine recalled, "as if I had done him some immeasurable harm by trying to get a little closer to him."

Dr. Ponterotto disagrees with those who suggest that Fischer suffered from Asperger's Syndrome; while Fischer displayed some personality traits that fit that diagnosis, those traits are also consistent with PPD--and Dr. Ponterotto concludes that Fischer had six of the seven traits that characterize PPD, including "suspects, without sufficient basis, that others are exploiting, harming or deceiving him" and "persistently bears grudges, i.e., is unforgiving of insults, injuries or slights." Dr. Ponterotto also says that Fischer "manifested non-bizarre delusions"; Fischer was not Schizophrenic--he was not hearing colors or experiencing other "bizarre" delusions--but he showed signs of Delusional Disorder, Persecutory Type, which is characterized by "...the person's belief that he or she is being conspired against, cheated, spied on, followed, poisoned or drugged, maliciously maligned, harassed, or obstructed in pursuit of long-term goals. Small slights may be exaggerated and become the focus of a delusional system."

Dr. Ponterotto believes that the early and intense onset of fame worsened Fischer's problems because, in the words of psychobiographer William Todd Schulz (p.98), "...some people are simply temperamentally unsuited to be famous. Their talent merits fame, but their personalities don't stand up to it." It would not be correct to say that chess made Fischer ill and, indeed, Dr. Ponterotto suggests that chess provided some balance for Fischer (p.99): "Perhaps chess was an anchor for his sanity and functioning, and without that anchor he was now more psychologically vulnerable than ever. Bobby's chess identity had fused with his personal identity, and when he abandoned competitive chess and thus his chess identity, he was lost."

A key point about Delusional Disorder is that someone who suffers from this illness can appear quite normal when he is talking about anything other than what Dr. Ponterotto calls the "delusional theme." Fischer's biographer Frank Brady told me that Fischer almost seemed to suffer from "Tourette's Syndrome" concerning Jews: once that subject came up Fischer would not talk about anything else but if one steered clear of that subject it was possible to have a nice, normal conversation with him.

Bobby Fischer's life eerily resembles the life of Paul Morphy (1837-1884), the first great American chess player; Dr. Ponterotto devotes an entire chapter to comparing Morphy's story to Fischer's--and the similarities, both positive and negative, are breathtaking: both men rapidly rose to the top of the chess world before quitting the game at the height of their powers and thereafter showing signs of significant mental illness. While Fischer's paranoia focused on what he believed to be a Jewish conspiracy against him, Morphy convinced himself that various people were trying to drive him out of New Orleans. Morphy even challenged one of these people to a duel. Like Fischer, Morphy was able to conduct a reasonable conversation on any subject other than the alleged conspiracy against him. Morphy's mother, brother and best friend tried to convince him to seek help at a mental institution but Morphy refused to go. Dr. Ponterotto concludes (p. 130), "The life stories of Fischer and Morphy are both fascinating and sad. In the end these men died virtually alone with no offspring to speak their legacy. Yet their influence and impact on the game of chess was so significant that their games will likely live on, worldwide, for as long as humans walk this earth. Despite their challenges and psychological struggles, let us honor their memory and legacy."

The fact that mental illness greatly impacted the careers--and lives--of the two greatest chess geniuses in American history is both tragic and cautionary. What, if anything, could have been done to help Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer? What can be done to make sure that the next great chess genius--or scientific genius or writing genius or any other kind of genius--does not suffer the way that Morphy and Fischer did? We can not afford to squander the prodigious talents of our greatest geniuses if our species is going to have any chance to overcome the formidable challenges cited in Harold T.P. Hayes' Three Levels of Time.

Dr. Ponterotto asks, "Does research support a relationship between creativity and mental illness?" Dr. Ponterotto notes a study that shows that the rate of mental illness is higher among creative writers than among a matched control group; neurological research has provided a possible explanation for this: certain genes and neurotransmitters that are connected with increased creativity also appear to be linked to a higher risk of developing certain forms of mental illness. Perhaps the kind of divergent thinking involved in creating great works of art and science is somehow connected to the bizarrely divergent thinking that leads to delusions and paranoia; a healthy, balanced genius may be able to regulate the stream of thoughts storming through his mind but a genius who is under stress or whose biochemistry is not quite so finely tuned may become unable to distinguish between brilliant innovation and paranoid delusion. Instead of continuing his own chess career and producing brilliant games, Fischer convinced himself that it was more important to prove that every move in several World Chess Championship matches had been choreographed to produce the desired results; he was ill and he was wrong but he knew that he was smarter than just about anyone else on the planet so who was going to talk him out of his delusions?

Dr. Ponterotto makes it clear that the research into how brain chemistry works is only just beginning and cause/effect relationships cannot yet be proven. Genius does not cause madness, nor are most mentally ill people highly creative. While there are many well known cases of chess geniuses who succumbed to mental illness, there has not yet been a long term study of chess players to determine if mental illness rates are higher in that group than in the population at large.

Dr. Ponterotto cautions that his diagnosis of Fischer is tentative and his hypothetical treatment recommendations--"long-term individual psychotherapy, family therapy, special support services throughout his schooling and possibly psychotropic medication"--are purely speculative but he believes that the right kind of intervention could have helped Fischer both personally and professionally (p. 151): "Clearly, Bobby Fischer, who basically withdrew from competition at the age of 29 (save for his 1992 comeback match against Spassky), had many years of chess ahead of him had he maintained his psychological health and competitive interests."

For far too long, many people have wrongly assumed that gifted and talented children can fend for themselves and that educational and psychological resources should be focused on helping children who are average or below average academically. The reality is that gifted and talented children need the right kind of nurturing at home and at school in order to reach their full potential personally and professionally. Anyone who thought that the young Fischer should be left to his own devices because treatment and guidance would possibly hinder the development of his chess gifts did Fischer--and the world--a great disservice. Fischer needed help to overcome the unique mixture of genetics and environment that fueled his paranoid and delusional tendencies and without that help he eventually lost the ability to be a functional member of society; Fischer suffered in solitude but the tragic "wilderness years" represent a major loss to human culture in terms of all the brilliant games he never played and all the great books he never wrote because his amazing mind was torn asunder by mental illness.

Further Reading:

A Psychological Autopsy of Bobby Fischer

Interview With Dr. Frank Brady, Author of Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall--From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

Brady Biography Paints Nuanced Portrait of Enigmatic Chess Champion Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer Against the World Details the Triumphs and Tragedies of a Great Champion

Harry Benson's Book Includes Striking Photos of World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer

More Insight into Bobby Fischer's Brilliant yet Tortured Mind

Decrypting Bobby Fischer: Professor Brings to Light the Darker Side of Genius

Bobby Fischer Comes Home is a Beautiful Portrait of Genuine Friendship

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Bobby Fischer Comes Home is a Beautiful Portrait of Genuine Friendship

The term "friend" has in many ways lost any real meaning now that it is possible to "friend" someone who you have never met and may barely even know. A true friend cherishes your positive qualities and loves you in spite of your negative traits; such a friend never stops trying to help you become a better person but does not abandon you if you have a setback in that quest. By his own admission, Bobby Fischer was a "difficult" person to befriend--but Grandmaster Helgi Olafsson made the effort to do so and he provided some measure of comfort to Fischer in the last stage of the great champion's life. Olafsson's book Bobby Fischer Comes Home: The Final Years in Iceland, a Saga of Friendship and Lost Illusion is a 143 page paean to the value of friendship, for without the intervention of Olafsson and the other members of the RJF Committee (the initials first stood for Robert J. Fischer but then took the double meaning "Rights, Justice, Freedom" after the group took up other causes as well) Fischer may have spent the last years of his life in prison.

In 1972, Reykjavik, Iceland was the site of Fischer's greatest triumph when he broke the Soviet monopoly on the World Chess Championship with a 12.5-8.5 victory over Boris Spassky; the margin would have been even more lopsided if Fischer had not lost the first game after making a speculative sacrifice in a drawish position and if Fischer had not forfeited the second game without showing up at all because of a dispute over playing conditions. Olafsson was a teenager when his homeland hosted that famous match and he saw several of the games in person; he recalls that a friend's father told him, "One day you might play Fischer or Petrosian [Spassky's predecessor as World Champion]!" Fischer never defended his title, retreating into a paranoia-fueled seclusion, but he emerged in 1992 to play a rematch against Spassky; unfortunately, the event was held in Sveti Stefan--violating a U.N. embargo against war-torn Yugoslavia--and the United States government issued a warrant for Fischer's arrest. Fischer lived as a fugitive for more than a decade until Japanese authorities detained him on July 13, 2004; the Japanese refused to either set him free or turn him over to U.S. authorities and the impasse lasted until Iceland--acting in response to the urgings of the RJF Committee--granted Fischer citizenship and agreed to give him asylum. Iceland received some criticism for helping Fischer, but--in an email reprinted in Bobby Fischer Comes Home--Olafsson explains why he acted on Fischer's behalf:

"There were many good reasons not to lend Bobby Fischer a helping hand whilst in Japan but given the strong possibility that the man was/is seriously ill was reason enough to try to help him. I will never regret that. Personally I make no distinction between, say, a schizo-paranoid, a person with cancer, a brain tumour or any other disease. Everyone should have some basic human rights. Jail was certainly not the correct place for Fischer."

Olafsson does not gloss over Fischer's well known--and quite despicable--anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and paranoid rants against anyone who displeased him (a group that came to include just about anyone who ever came in contact with Fischer, including his closest family members and dearest friends). In his interactions with the deeply troubled genius, Olafsson alternated between gently challenging Fischer, patiently ignoring Fischer's outbursts until the storm passed and forcefully suggesting a change in topics--but he never abandoned Fischer and he tried to bring out the best in his friend. Olafsson sympathized with Fischer's justified outrage about his stored property being auctioned off but he did not feed Fischer's paranoid view that this action was part of some grand conspiracy. Sometimes, Olafsson just responded with silence when he knew that he could not offer any words of comfort; one such example happened after Fischer reacted to Olafsson humming by declaring, "I think I know your philosophy. It's like in the Monty Python song. Life's a bowl of s--- no matter what you make of it. Look on the bright side of life. Am I right?" Olafsson did not take the bait because he did not perceive that outburst as an insult or a challenge but rather as a symptom of a disease: "I believe that Bobby Fischer was suffering from depression. Taking medication or seeing a psychiatrist was never an option for him. He lay in bed for a good part of the day, a common sign of a depressive mood."

Olafsson describes a Fischer who was demanding, reclusive and self-centered but who was also capable of moments of kindness and tenderness. Fischer's default mode was one of wariness and distrust but when he felt comfortable in a situation he could be a charming and fun companion. Sadly, Fischer's friendship with Olafsson took the same course as most of the relationships in Fischer's life; Fischer blew up at Olafsson over a perceived slight and cut off contact with him. As you read Olafsson's heart-wrenching description of this episode you can feel the pain emanating from the pages. Far from being bitter, Olafsson expresses regret and sadness about how things turned out. A few months after that breach, Fischer died. He suffered a lot in his final days because he refused treatment, not trusting modern medical techniques. His physician, Dr. Eirikur Jonsson, recalls, "At no time did his character leave him...When Bobby Fischer was admitted to Landspitalinn in October of 2007 we realized that this individual intended to fight his disease all by himself. That day in January his fight came to the only possible conclusion. It could not have been any other way. What an incredible fighter. But for me and so many others his death was a very traumatic experience."

Near the end of the book, Olafsson writes, "I thought back to our last conversation, when he had said, 'Don't listen to my negativity, Helgi.' And I thought about his rants, the infamous interviews and his stubborn anti-Semitism. For me they were the expression of a desperate soul. Rather than talking about issues that were seemingly in his heart, I believed that they were expressing his own inner feelings. To me it always seemed that he was just expressing how bad he felt."

Olafsson offers a perceptive take on those notorious internet radio interviews: "Bobby would never acknowledge if he was going through a tough period. Most people who had gone through what he had been through in the nine months he spent in the Japanese detention centre would be in need of counseling. Sometimes he was very bitter, cynical and disillusioned. Nevertheless, after he settled in Iceland I never heard him repeat the wicked things he had said in the radio interviews during his stay in Hungary and Japan. It is a real tragedy how he disgraced himself time and again in those radio interviews.

I told him at our first meeting that such statements were unacceptable. About the 9/11 interview he later simply told me: 'I was tricked.' Bobby was not in a stable condition when Eugenio Torre and the journalists from the Filipino radio station phoned him after the attacks on the Twin Towers. They knew what to expect from him."

In contrast to the despicable, contemptible way that Torre and the others egged Fischer on and brought out the worst in him, Olafsson and other Icelanders attempted to bring out the best in Fischer. Fischer's last radio interview took place in 2006, hosted by Saga Radio's Sigurdur Tomasson; while not entirely free of his bigoted opinions (to put it mildly), this interview also featured Fischer calmly reminiscing about his days as a youngster in the vibrant New York chess scene and he offered his thoughts about various chess champions. Jose Raul Capablanca and Paul Morphy were Fischer's two favorites, while Fischer did not like Alexander Alekhine as much even though he respected Alekhine's strength. "Alekhine had a rather heavy style," Fischer said. "Capablanca was much more brilliant and talented, he had a real light touch...But the thing that was great about Capablanca was that he really spoke his mind, he said what he believed was true, he said what he felt." You don't have to be a psychologist to figure out that Fischer admired Capablanca so much because he considered him a kindred spirit both in terms of talent and outspokenness.

Fischer revolutionized chess with his opening innovations, his peerless endgame technique and his fierce will to win--and the increment-based chess clock that he patented has become standard fare in serious chess tournaments. He accomplished so much despite his serious mental health problems that one cannot help but wonder how much more he could have achieved if he had been able to stabilize his fragile mindset and volatile emotions. It must have taken an extraordinary act of concentrated will for Fischer to become World Chess Champion despite his illness; how many other great minds never become known to the world because their brilliance is trapped within a web of turbulent emotions and fears?

Monday, February 11, 2013

New Report Concludes That Penn State and the NCAA Rushed to Judgment Against Joe Paterno

It is unfortunate and sad--tragic, really--that the general public is quick to believe the worst about a person, particularly when the person in question lived a life characterized by integrity. Joe Paterno's distinguished coaching career at Penn State not only produced great football teams but--much more importantly--it produced great citizens. Paterno's name has been dragged through the mud by opportunists who are eager to find a scapegoat for the gross mishandling of the Jerry Sandusky case and Paterno is the perfect scapegoat because he is deceased and thus unable to defend his good name by speaking for himself. In Joe Paterno's Legacy I concluded:

Hopefully, with the passage of time cooler heads will prevail and Paterno will be remembered first and foremost for the "Grand Experiment" (the Big Ten Conference could make one move in that direction by reversing the hasty decision to remove Paterno's name from the Conference's football championship trophy). Joe Paterno was a shining light in the increasingly murky cesspool of college sports.

After the release of the Freeh Report, few members of the media were willing to publicly speak up for Paterno but I expressed doubt about Freeh's harsh attack on Paterno's character:

In retrospect it is clear that Paterno should have taken a more active role in addressing the Sandusky allegations--Paterno himself expressed regret that he had not done more--but I still find it hard to believe that Paterno knowingly and deliberately covered up child abuse merely to avoid bad publicity for his football program.

A new report commissioned by the Paterno family but independently investigated by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, former FBI supervisory special agent/former state prosecutor James Clemente and Dr. Fred Berlin--an expert in sexual disorders and pedophilia at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine--raises serious questions about Freeh's methodology and conclusions.

Thornburgh explains the defects he and his fellow researchers found in Freeh's work: "The lack of factual support for the [Freeh report's] inaccurate and unfounded findings related to Mr. Paterno and its numerous process-oriented deficiencies call into question the credibility of the entire report. In my opinion, the Freeh report is seriously flawed, both with respect to the process of [its] investigation and its findings related to Mr. Paterno...There was just a rush to injustice."

You can read the entire Thornburgh/Clemente/Berlin report here.

You can read a brief summary of the report here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Perfection Versus Perspective

"What makes a man wanna rule the world? (A double a double arrogance)."--Prince, "Arrogance"

A complex combination of conflicting character traits comprise the strange witches' brew that fuels a champion; a champion must "chase perfection" in order to "catch excellence" (as Vince Lombardi once put it) but a champion must also have the resiliency to accept failure. How can one simultaneously have perfection as a goal and yet deal with the reality that nothing in this world--particularly one's ability to perform under pressure--is perfect? Seth Wickersham's recent article about Bill Walsh analyzes the potent mixture of perfectionism, arrogance and insecurity that drove Walsh to greatness (including three Super Bowl championships in 10 seasons as San Francisco's head coach)--and then drove him to leave the game at the height of his career.

Wickersham writes of Walsh, "He always coached through existential torture, with alternating bouts of believing that he was brilliant and that he was incapable of fulfilling his own idea of greatness." Despite his tremendous success, Walsh felt torment both during and after his coaching career. Wickersham explains, "What haunted Walsh went deeper than pink slips and long nights. It was his drive to be great at something he couldn't control. His colleagues recall him as the most intelligent coach they'd ever seen, which Walsh not so discreetly agreed with. But he could be sensitive to the point of devastation, crushed by failures large and small."

Wickersham says that the so-called 49ers Way "was really the Walsh Way, a system flowing from one man's ingenuity and insecurity. By the late '80s, as Walsh's definition of success became so narrow as to be unattainable, the Walsh Way started to cripple the coach. He would sit dazed in his hot tub even after wins, despondent that he had miscalculated a play or two. 'I was a tortured person,' Walsh later told biographer [David] Harris. 'I felt the failure so personally...eventually I couldn't get out from under it all. You can't live that way long. You can only attack that part of your nervous system so many times."

Almost immediately after he retired following San Francisco's January 1989 Super Bowl victory, Walsh decided that he had left the game too soon--a feeling that only intensified when his successor George Seifert led the 49ers to a dominant season capped off by a Super Bowl triumph in January 1990. Wickersham declares, "Walsh hated that Seifert won a championship that year with his team, his West Coast offense, his philosophy; he so hated the ring that the team awarded him that he gave it away." Walsh's son Craig confirms Wickersham's account: "He didn't want them to win. He couldn't hand over the team he had created to someone else, because he wasn't capable of it."

Walsh wanted to define his legacy on his terms and explain to the world the exact reasons for his success, so he decided to assemble a comprehensive blueprint for putting together a championship organization from top to bottom. The result, after years of painstaking work--and the help of several collaborators, including his one-time assistant coach (and future Super Bowl champion coach in his own right) Brian Billick--was Finding the Winning Edge, a massive book that has become a bible for both aspiring and established football coaches. Wickersham writes, "For those who coached under Walsh, Finding the Winning Edge was a study of the genius beyond his playbook. For those who coached against him, it was a window into the mind of their nemesis. For [Bill] Belichick, it was validation. It was published during the crossroads of his career, while he was working as a Jets assistant. The book reinforced Belichick's own belief in detailed planning, which is why he calls it and Jack Welch and the GE Way the two most influential books of his career."

Walsh's book explores in detail a subject that has long fascinated me: The Difference Between Winners and Champions. Here is my explanation of that difference:

All pro athletes are winners. They are better at what they do best than 99% of people are at doing anything and they've been winning games or matches for most of their lives. Only a select few athletes are champions, though. They are the ones who make you watch, who are compelling figures to even casual fans--guys like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods...

Champions project a message to their opponents that induces fear and resignation. Opponents of former world chess champion Bobby Fischer used to call it "Fischer Fear." They used to say that they could feel his manic energy, his fierce will to win, across the chessboard. Michael Jordan's opponents used to feel a similar thing, as did Kasparov's and as do Woods' and Federer's.

The flip side of this kind of ferocious, single-minded drive and determination is that, as Kobe Bryant candidly admitted recently, "Winning takes precedence over all. There's no gray area. No almosts. It's a very unbalanced way to live and I know that. It's not healthy. And I can't justify it, but someone has to win and why not me and the Lakers organization." My personality is naturally wired in that fashion and while this can lead to great success there is the constant danger that without the right perspective it can also turn life into a joyless all or nothing proposition.

How can one chase perfection without losing a balanced perspective? Is it even possible to do so? More than a decade ago, ESPN's "SportsCentury" series profiled dozens of the 20th century's greatest athletes; this may be a slight exaggeration but my recollection is that Jack Nicklaus was about the only champion who appeared to be well-balanced: most champions seem to be tormented like Walsh and/or unable to completely integrate their perfectionism into their post-competition lives, often resulting in some combination of drug addiction, infidelity and/or reckless business moves leading to financial ruin. Perfectionism may be an asset during a 60 minute NFL game or a 48 minute NBA game but, as Walsh ruefully noted, "You can only attack that part of your nervous system so many times." Jerry West, the all-time great player who later drafted Kobe Bryant, is a classic example of someone who achieved greatness because of his perfectionism and yet still feels tormented.

Striving for greatness is important and meaningful but there can be a high price to pay for such striving and few people who attain greatness avoid paying for it in some fashion; that does not mean that anyone should settle for mediocrity but rather that those who strive for greatness must have tremendous self-awareness and must concentrate on maintaining proper balance mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

V Thoughts About Super Bowl XLVII

I: The term "elite" is thrown around far too casually but, regardless of how we should properly characterize Joe Flacco's overall body of work and/or current ranking among NFL quarterbacks, it is indisputable that Flacco just authored one of the greatest postseason runs ever by a quarterback: 11 touchdowns and no interceptions while leading the Baltimore Ravens to road victories against teams helmed by the two best quarterbacks of this era (Tom Brady and Peyton Manning) en route to capturing the Super Bowl MVP after dissecting a dominant San Francisco 49ers defense by completing 22 of 33 passes for 287 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Call him Bazooka Joe, because he has a cannon for a right arm, a cannon that blows apart opposing defenses with accurate downfield shots at crucial moments.

II: Boomer Esiason nailed it; Esiason gave his CBS colleague (and former Ray Lewis teammate) Shannon Sharpe credit for directly asking Ray Lewis about Lewis' role in the still-unsolved double murder of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar for which Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice but Esiason bluntly stated what no one on ESPN (and just about every other media outlet) dared to say: Lewis' answers about that crime are completely unsatisfactory and Lewis' legacy is tainted by that crime. Lewis' comments to Sharpe were particularly callous and heartless; Lewis said "God has never made a mistake" and Lewis not only took credit for paying money to the victims' families (which he did not out of the kindness of his heart but to settle civil lawsuits) but he declared that his success on the football field after those murders proves his innocence because he believes that God would never elevate to prominence someone who did wrong. By Lewis' twisted standard, no successful person could ever be convicted of a crime; apparently, Lewis never heard of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and a myriad of other historical figures who attained lasting fame/notoriety while committing horrific crimes. I am not equating Lewis with Hitler and Stalin but the point is that it is presumptuous for anyone--let alone a man like Lewis who has yet to divulge all that he knows about the double murder--to speak for God and/or God's plan. Lewis' abilities/success as a football player do not justify anything that he does off of the football field, though it is obvious that he and many others think otherwise; far too many athletes, members of the media and fans apparently believe that if someone can get 15 tackles in a playoff game then it is OK if that person literally gets away with murder (or, at the very least, is an accessory to murder by keeping silent).

If Lewis truly wants to be a great humanitarian then he must give a complete account of what really happened on the night of the double murder--period, point blank. Nothing else that he says or does will ever outweigh his role as participant and/or accessory in that crime. Lewis can start by explaining what happened to the clothes he was wearing that night, then he can explain how blood from one of the victims (Jacinth Baker) ended up in his limousine and finally he can detail exactly what he did and/or saw during the two killings.

III: Before the Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick said that there is no reason to be nervous before a game as long as you prepare properly. That sounds good but the reality is that great performers ranging from Johnny Carson to Emmitt Smith have all admitted to being very nervous before appearing on the biggest stage--and Kaepernick himself certainly looked nervous at times during the first half of the Super Bowl. Kaepernick was in a bit of denial prior to the big game but he adjusted well and he almost led his 49ers to the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

IV: Steve Young said that the Super Bowl is often decided in the first half because one team is not quite ready and falls too far behind due to mental errors and mistakes. Even though the 49ers ultimately made the game close, Young's description proved to be accurate (although his prediction about who would win was wrong) and it must be admitted that the game was essentially decided in the first 30 minutes (or, to be precise, the first 31 minutes, as the Jacoby Jones kickoff return on the opening play of the second half effectively put the game out of reach).

V: I don't have access to the "all 22" coaches' film so maybe I am missing something but I just do not understand why the 49ers did not run four plays out of the Pistol formation once they reached Baltimore's five yard line on their last drive of the game; the passes that the 49ers attempted were high risk, low reward and I do not believe that the Ravens could have stopped the run/pass option four straight times with the game on the line: the 49ers could have spread the Ravens out to mitigate the pass rush and then Kaepernick would have been able to either run for the score or else pass to a receiver who was single-covered. Yes, everything seems a lot simpler when viewed from one's living room couch as opposed to when viewed from the sidelines of the biggest game of the year but I think that John Harbaugh outcoached Jim Harbaugh in that crucial sequence of plays.