There’s no prize money. No sponsors to please. So why do some age groupers resort to cheating to get to the podium? A sports psychologist weighs in.
When Christian Mongrain raised his camera to shoot some pictures of his wife’s new bike in transition at Ironman 70.3 Syracuse in mid June, he heard the unmistakable sound of a bike tire being deflated. And then he saw another competitor, Kristen Johnson, leaning over that new bike and letting the air out.
So began a new deflate-gate, which Johnson has since admitted to and apologized for. But it’s far from the only cheating incident among the ranks of age-group triathletes. Think Canadian Julie Miller, who was DQd from Ironman Canada 2015 and barred from competition for two years after she claimed the win, but race directors couldn’t find evidence of her racing the entire course. Armchair sleuths and race directors, especially in running races, find evidence of deceit all the time. “It’s a huge problem across a number of sports,” says Denver-based performance psychologist Steve Portenga, Ph.D., of iPerformance Consultants, who’s worked with individual athletes and franchises in every major professional sport.
So if there’s no money at stake, why would everyday athletes (albeit usually high-performing ones) risk their reputation and racing future?
Theories suggest some cheaters want the fancy trophy. Or the bragging rights. Or people who commit these acts have no moral compass. But Portenga says there’s more to it than that.
“It’s not about education, it’s about identity,” he says. In other words, they know that cheating isn’t something they want to do and that it’s wrong. But if being successful in sport is too important to someone, “they can start to focus more on the results than anything related to the process,” he says. “I’ve seen some amateurs who take their games more personally than pro athletes I’ve worked with.”
“There are a lot of things we can put together to define ourselves, and if we have a lot of pieces of that puzzle [such as family, career, sports, relationships], then how we feel about ourselves is pretty secure and stable. But when you have just one or two things, we’re in a tenuous and uncomfortable position if either of those things gets threatened,” Portenga says. So the person who sees themselves only as “the podium finisher” can do drastic things when that identity seems shaky.
It’s like the bear that only got rough when her cubs seemed in danger. Typically, people don’t start out with a plan to cheat, Portenga says. “But what drives our decision making is far more fluid than what I think people give credit to. If your identity is at risk, you may decide to do something you wouldn’t normally do to protect yourself. Being ethical isn’t part of the decision.” In fact, in an apology Johnson wrote, she’s reported to have said “I was under so much pressure to perform… I don’t know why I did it… I am not a horrible person, just someone that made an impulsive, bad decision…”
Of course, there are some serial cheaters. Sometimes people go back to that well because they got away with it (slippery slope—going undetected can create positive feelings), or because their need for other people to see them as doing well supersedes their own need to do the right thing. If they brag about their wins and their audience isn’t responding, “they get a sense their achievements aren’t having the impact they want and they keep going and going,” Portenga says. “But the people who you really should care about don’t care how you did. They’ll like you just the same whether you win or lose.”
Portenga is helping to prevent the next generation of cheaters, teaching kids approaches including this one: Focus on how you’re doing your sport rather than what result you’re getting. “Are you engaged, invested, working hard, thorough and disciplined—or acting however you want to be as a person? If you do that, you’re going to end up with good results and you can feel like you’re doing the right thing,” he says. It’s not always easy, since some spectators, fans, parents and friends do value people based on their race results. “But how fast you run doesn’t say anything about how you are as a person. It’s how you treat other people and go on about your life.”