Psychologist Tom Tutko: in Sports Winning Really Isn't Everything
Viewed from almost any angle and at every level from Little League to the Super Bowl, many observers believe that organized sport in the United States is in a rather sorry mess—bedeviled by “professionalism” among amateurs and an insatiable hunger for big money among pros.
One disillusioned critic of the situation is Dr. Thomas Tutko, 43, a professor of psychology at California’s San Jose State University and codirector of the Institute for the Study of Athletic Motivation. The Institute has tested over 50,000 high school, college and professional athletes in all the major sports since 1962, employing a special 190-question test. It measures the athlete in 11 personality traits. The results are interpreted and a written motivational report is sent to both the coach and athlete, together with suggestions on how to maintain strengths and adjust weaknesses.
Educated at Penn State and Northwestern, Dr. Tutko—a college basketball and baseball player—travels widely in the U.S. and Canada, lecturing before athletes, coaches, athletic directors, parents and recreational leaders. Recently he discussed his concern about trends in U.S. sports with Bill Bruns of PEOPLE.
Woody Hayes, Ohio State’s football coach, says, “There’s a movement underway to undermine college athletics. Some of these psychology and sociology professors we can do without.” Do you take that personally?
If he means sports as we know it in this country, with the emphasis on money and “winning is everything,” then yes, it needs to be undermined.
Can you explain that?
The preoccupation with “winning only” and being No. 1 is a sick preoccupation for scholastic sports. It’s very painful to think of all the youngsters who love sports but who are being eliminated at every stage just because they aren’t going to be “winners”—because they’re too short or too slow or too weak.
The genuine benefits of athletics—health, sociability and developing personal psychological growth, cooperation, loyalty and pride—are being undermined.
What else ails the psyche of American sport?
I was a great admirer of Roberto Clemente. Even the way he died, trying to fly to Nicaragua to help some people he didn’t know, revealed the kind of person he was. But professional sport is going in the opposite direction: money, greed, self-absorption. The players say, “Look how important I am. I can manipulate you. You want me in the NBA? Then pay me more than the ABA.” Millions become a nice figure to toss around.
There are those who argue that trophies and championships and successful superstars serve as an inspiration for young athletes.
Parents have been duped into thinking that sports is “good” and “healthy” and “character-building.” But when they look at the end results, the professionals, can they honestly believe that? We’re building characters, not character.
We have to take the modern pro athlete off his pedestal. He isn’t a hero, he’s a man with a physical capacity to play ball well. He is basically selfish—meaning his first thought is usually for himself—and we have deliberately “bred” him to entertain us by playing games. He has to win to survive, but the rest of us don’t. Why take that kind of guy as a model?
What resistance does a psychologist meet when he gets past the office and through the locker room door?
Athletes think we can see right through their heads, that we’re going to discover everything about them. When we first tested the San Francisco ’49ers, Leo Nomellini cracked, “Is this the test they give you to see if you’re crazy?”
I also remember sitting down with a football coaching staff and telling them about a 280-pound, 6’7″ player, “Don’t ever criticize or abuse him in the presence of teammates.” You could see some of the old-timers banging their heads against the wall at that advice.
Can your testing help a team?
Professional sports must be evaluated separately from scholastic sports, in the pressure for winning. We can’t give an athlete a pill that makes him more motivated, more coachable or more aggressive. But we can try to give him psychological insights that may help him reach peak performance. We’ve helped many individual athletes, and we’ve helped a number of teams that were having morale problems.
Critics argue that your tests are a tool for the manipulative coach, that he can use the data against the athlete.
The purpose of the test is to set up a communication between the coach and athlete, to have them get together and discuss the results. Besides, authoritarian and holier-than-thou coaches won’t touch the test. They think psychologists are part of the Communist menace, that we’re going to take all the fun out of coaching.
What role should parents play if they have a youngster in athletics?
The single most important thing is support for the child, win or lose, and no matter how poorly he plays. We are thrusting our children into an environment that is relatively vicious (Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, youth hockey) and many of them are not ready for it; they are still developing. To say that youngsters are not affected by losing or getting hit with a hockey puck, or riding the bench is silly.
Too many parents and coaches do the same thing psychology-wise as they do injury-wise. They say, “Brush it off.” Well, you can’t “brush off” feeling miserable. If you could brush it off, mental health would be no problem.
What else should parents do?
They should have a discussion with their youngster about why he or she is in sports, and what he or she wants to get out of it. They should get athletically acquainted with their child. And they should question their own emotional involvement. If their child wants to withdraw at any time—even if he or she is a star—does the kid have their sanction? Do they support their child regardless of the outcome? What are they expecting from their child—that he or she bring fame and recognition to the family?
What kind of “profile” should a coach for young athletes have?
Kids don’t need a “big-league” coach shouting at them, running them through a lot of drills, giving them inane pep talks. The coach should be a nice, lovable, concerned guy, who will teach them the skills of the sport, because that’s what kids respond to at that age. They’re thinking, “If he knows my name, if I know I’m going to play regularly, if I know he’s concerned about me, I don’t really care that much about the final score.”
Is there an alternative to this obsession with winning?
I say maintain the competitiveness. Try to win. But the ultimate goal of the coach should be to help each player on the team work to his maximum potential, even if he’s not a “winner,” so that the player will enjoy the sport, and hopefully become a better person.
Unfortunately, today when you ask, “Is winning all that worthwhile?” you question the coach’s value structure. You deny his work and reason for existence. But I feel that by educating the coach to other values—that his reward comes from being able to see the growth that takes place in a youngster—we can bring about a change.
What are the chances for that happening?
We recently tested 100 Little League parents in San Jose, and 85 percent of the parents said they would rather have their son playing regularly on a losing team than riding the bench on a winner.
Should girls be allowed into Little League?
I’m all for anything that will get girls involved in physical activity, where they learn to compete and to appreciate what it means to win and lose on the ballfield. They’ll later be more sensitive, empathetic mothers when their youngsters play sports.
Can you envision a woman ever playing in one of the major professional sports?
I doubt if any coach would discriminate against a female basketball player who was seven feet tall, had 70 percent shooting accuracy, ran the 100 in 9.8 and could rebound like Bill Russell. That girl would play in the NBA. The team that drafted her would build another dressing room and never think twice.