A “Sportsman’s Instinct”

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We should listen carefully to what people have to say to us about their very makeup, especially when what they tell us depicts a mindset and predisposition unfathomable to most of us. There are those among us who — without hesitation or compunction — are ready to act (or even shoot) first and think later.

By now many people will have heard about the tragic death of Reeva Steenkamp, the young model who is alleged to have been murdered by her boyfriend, competitive runner Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius, who some have dubbed “the blade runner” because he runs on prosthetic legs, and who many see as the hero who made history in last summer’s Olympic games, denies committing premeditated murder, and claims he mistakenly killed the woman he loved when he fired four shots through a locked bathroom door thinking he was shooting at an intruder. Pistorius’ father chimed in with a particularly interesting explanation for the real culprit in the tragedy: Steenkamp’s death was not the result of a premeditated, malevolent act but rather a sportsman’s “instinct.” More specifically, he proposed that “when you are a sportsman, you act even more on instinct” (source: The Sunday Telegraph), and “it’s instinct — things happen and that’s what you do.” Such statements raise questions about what kind of instinct he means and why he thinks a person involved in sports is more prone to such instinctual behavior.

Pistorius himself might have given us a glimpse of the kind of instinct his father was talking about in a tweet he posted in November of last year (source: The Huffington Post): “Nothing like getting home to hear the washing machine on and thinking it’s an intruder to go into full combat recon mode into the pantry! waa.” So let’s see if we can piece together what this sportsman’s instinct thing is all about (at least according to Pistorius and his father):

  1. you see or hear something and it could be that something is about to happen that you don’t want, or someone who is up to no good;
  2. without a second thought you move into full combat mode, ready to kill or be killed; and,
  3. you instinctively go into this mode because you are, after all, a sportsman.

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Makes perfect sense, right? On the surface, perhaps it doesn’t make all that much sense at all. But it makes a little more sense if you’re familiar with the basic makeup of certain personality types — the types I refer to in my writings as “aggressive” personalities, a sub-group of whom tend to naturally gravitate toward competitive sports. And we need to pay some very close attention to what such people say about themselves (and what others who know and understand them well also say about them) because it confirms a lot about why, despite what appears to be their usual high level of self-control and discipline, such personalities can indeed be quite dangerous.

I’ve posted other articles on this blog on aggressive personalities (see “Understanding the Aggressive Personalities”, part of my series on aggressive personalities). These are personalities whose interpersonal style of relating is distinctively aggressive in character. That is, they take a sort of “no-holds barred” approach to life, viewing much of life’s happenstances as challenges with which they must contend and over which they’re determined to emerge victorious. And there’s a big difference between any of the various aggressive personalities and the healthiest of all personalities — the assertive personality — in that aggressive personalities have a very different attitude toward the rules and the welfare of others compared to assertive folks. In my book, Character Disturbance, I outline the core characteristics of the aggressive personalities, which include:

  • Aggressive seeking of the dominant position (i.e., having to “win”) in most situations
  • Abhorrence of the subordinate or submissive position (i.e., hating to “lose”)
  • Irascible temperament (i.e., easily annoyed or upset, quick to anger, to act or to aggressively respond)
  • Lack of adaptive fearfulness (i.e., inordinately bold, daring, risk-taking)
  • Lack of inhibitory control (i.e., defective internal “brakes,” don’t easily stop and think)

There are different sub-types of aggressive personalities, each with their own distinctive features, including the type I like to call the “channeled aggressive” personality (“Understanding the Channeled-Aggressive Personality”). This personality type is particularly prone to gravitate toward such things as competitive sports, the military, and even high-powered business. And although such enterprises provide them an opportunity to channel their aggression in a socially acceptable manner and they therefore tend to flourish, and although they generally discipline their instincts for practical reasons, because they lack the mature and principle-based reserve of assertive personalities, they inevitably cross boundaries and violate limits (especially when they think they can get away with it), sometimes in ways that inflict great damage on others.

I’m not making any advance judgment whatsoever about the nature of the Steenkamp tragedy or Pistorius’ guilt or innocence with respect to the crime with which he has been charged. Nor am I making a formal assessment of any kind of Pistorius’ character. I also don’t want to convey the message that all individuals who become involved in highly competitive endeavors are necessarily aggressive personalities. But I think it incumbent on us to listen carefully to what people have to say to us about their very makeup, especially when what they tell us depicts a mindset and predisposition unfathomable to most of us. We need to accept that there are those among us who — without hesitation or compunction — are ready to act (or even shoot) first and think (and possibly regret) later (even Pistorius asserts that he quite quickly decided to simply start shooting at a person he could neither see nor identify and who was locked in a small room with virtually no possibility for quick escape). Crudely speaking, and without implying a necessarily neurological as opposed to characterological basis for the difference, such folks are simply not “wired” like most of us. Although the way they’re put together might seem to work to their advantage as well as ours when they’re actively engaged in their preferred pursuits (e.g., running companies, engaging their opponents on the field of play, etc.), their lack of well-founded internal controls can make them a virtual ticking time bomb. In recent years we’ve witnessed numerous examples of such individuals — many in the world of professional and amateur sports — who have crossed major boundaries. Yet we always seem to be surprised when something terrible happens. We need to listen more carefully when these individuals tell us about themselves. And if we’re thinking about a relationship with them, we need to be particularly cautious.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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