David Beckham – too much of a good thing?

Maybe not, as the Netflix series, Beckham, got 12.4 million views in its first week…

However, what I’m more interested in is David Beckhams personality style – do we see glimpses over an overcontrolled personality style throughout the series, did this help him become a great footballer, and is there anything we can learn from his story?

Can you have too much self-control?

Self-control, the ability to inhibit competing urges, impulses, behaviors, or desires and delay gratification in order to pursue future goals is often equated with success and happiness. However, too much self-control, or overcontrol (OC), characterised by maladaptive perfectionism, compulsive striving and high levels of distress tolerance can be equally problematic. Overcontrol is associated with social isolation, loneliness, poor interpersonal functioning, and severe and difficult-to-treat mental health problems, such as anorexia nervosa, chronic depression, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (e.g., Lynch & Cheavens, 2008; Zucker et al., 2007). 

Many professional sports people have an overcontrolled coping style; after all, to succeed at such a high level you have to have discipline, determination, and great distress tolerance! But even at lower levels of sport, it’s often the combination of an OC temperament and early parental environment that shapes sporting success – and perhaps more importantly, personality.

Throughout the Beckham documentary there are multiple moments where David Beckham exemplifies an over-controlled coping style, and we see how a combination of David’s temperament (nature) and early family environment (nurture) shaped and reinforced this coping style. In RO DBT, this convergence of nature and nurture is referred to as the ‘biosocial theory’. You can watch a video of Dr Lynch, the RO DBT treatment developer, talking about the theory here:

In the early episodes, David’s dad, Ted, beautifully illustrates one aspect of the OC ‘nurture’ element of the theory – a parent that overvalues performance, high achievement and winning. David remembers his dad taking him out for hours to practice – “left foot, right foot, over and over and over again, OK, not good enough, do it again, not good enough, do it again, over and over again”. David tells us he was more scared when his dad was watching him play because “I knew if I put a foot wrong, he’d tell me. And he’d always tell me. Always.” We learn Ted never complimented David, and when Ted was asked if he was too tough on David, he replies: “No, if I told him how good he was, then he’s got nothing to work at”.

Research shows that highlighting mistakes as intolerable, with an emphasis on winning, can send a message to the child that they are never good enough, and contribute to the development of maladaptive perfectionism. All too often, controlling behaviour by parents and coaches is portrayed as necessary for success as an athlete. But evidence shows this idea is mistaken. In fact, such an approach can be detrimental to both a child’s chances of sporting success and their wellbeing. Evidence suggests it:

  • harms children’s confidence and self-esteem.
  • is associated with depression and anxiety.
  • increases competition anxiety.
  • and leads to sports dropout.

An experiment at the 2012 Olympic Games found coaches with a more supportive approach achieved higher medal tallies than those who did not (Cheon, Reeve, Lee and Lee 2015). Although this study was focused on coaches, many parents act as coaches for their children (and not just for sports activities), making these findings important for us to bear in mind – as parents and as mental health professionals.

David Beckham was gifted with a natural talent that compensated and complimented the controlling behaviour of his dad, football coaches and managers – but he is one in a million!

For the other nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand of us, a focus on fun, learning new skills, making friends, and being part of a team can help kids, their parents and their coaches get the most out of the games they love – and, perhaps more importantly, help build a happier, healthier life.

*Temperament: genetic predispositions that determine the way we experience and react to the world