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 Eric Cantona the former Manchester United and French Soccer star currently appears in a successful movie where he plays a kind of mentor figure assisting in motivating a football fan who has fallen on desperate times. Cantona provides the necessary motivation to assist the hapless central character wrestling with several dire predicaments in his life. It’s no accident that Eric was chosen for the role as he is widely regarded as the kind of personality we all think of when considering passionate sportsmen. Being such an iconic inspirational athlete on the pitch, who would never give up and kept urging his team on, he was the ideal choice as someone who could rouse those of us close to giving up on life.


However, the dark side of Cantona and perhaps sporting passion, is captured in the sensational notorious photographs of Cantona in his sporting heyday dragged away from brawling with fans, ironically enough after having been sent off by the referee for aggression on the pitch. He was even banned for nine months in 1995 following an infamous ‘kung-fu’ style kick involving a Crystal Palace supporter.


Is there a link between the aggression Cantona could display and his passion as an elite athlete? The question is not just an issue for sports fans but has dramatically wider implications. Those of us who are fanatical about a cause – perhaps following a football team – or a political movement – or a lover – or a cause like global warming, might as a result get so intensely heated up about our obsession, that we consider questionable acts, for example breaking the law, in support of our passion.


Many footballers and sportsmen, not just Eric Cantona, were noted for their zeal for the game also appeared to more likely to get aggressive with anyone who got in their way or bend or even break the rules in the service of their ardour. Getting passionate about something appears a healthy approach when strong motivation is needed to attain difficult goals. Passionate people are surely more inspiring at interviews and therefore more likely to get hired. But is there a dark side to passion – does it lead the single-minded to cheat or trample underfoot aside anyone who gets in their way?


In the moving Cameron Crowe film ‘Jerry MacGuire’, the sports agent played by Tom Cruise remonstrates with his elite US Football star client, the key to the game is to play with such devotion that it inspires others. He appeals to Cuba Gooding junior to remember back to when he played just for the sheer joy of the sport, and back then it wasn’t about the money. Unfortunately the Football Star seems to struggle recalling when performing passionately wasn’t just for the reimbursement.


Psychologists Eric Donahue, Blanka Rip and Robert Vallerand from the University of Que´bec in Montreal have just published a fascinating research study in the prestigious academic journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise which scientifically probes the fascinating question of whether you can suffer from too much passion?


Vallerand and his team are pioneers in a novel and important approach to the study of passion. The first key point they make is that there is a world of difference between merely liking something and getting passionate about it. You may take pleasure in following a football match, but if you are truly passionate about soccer, the activity becomes incorporated in a core manner into your sense of identity. You declare you are a football fan (short for fanatic?) rather than simply someone who enjoys the game. When your sense of identity becomes enmeshed with your passion then, for example, you get defensive if football is attacked in some way because the attack then becomes an assault on you as well.


So far so good, but Vallerand and colleagues go on to provocatively contend there are in fact two distinct kinds of passion – one positive and the other negative. This is an important idea because for the first time its being suggested that the key to success in life is not just zeal, but a particular kind of enthusiasm.


They define the negative passion as ‘obsessive passion’ and believe the obsessively passionate are suffering from a problem – their basic personal identity is too closely and unhealthily tied up with their infatuation. When this occurs the passion is pursued relentlessly because the excitement derived from it is too much, it’s out of control and the passionate appears to have no choice – they are controlled by their enthusiasm rather than the other way round. This can occur because if your whole identity is tied up with being an elite footballer, for example, you believe your world will fall apart should you not be able to pursue your enthusiasm.


Because the interest ends up occupying disproportionate space in your identity, this inevitably leads to conflict with others and additional parts of your life – because your existence narrows to the relentless pursuit of just the obsession. You will lose relationships and experience economic hardship, in order to service your craze. The author Nick Hornby seems to have captured this point acutely in his films and books such as ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘Fever Pitch’ where male obsessive passion for records and football, frequently lead to negative outcomes in personal relationships (particularly with women).


Vallerand and his colleagues suggest a few tests for whether you are suffering from this negative obsessive passion. These include the question of whether you feel guilty about your dedication, because you know at some level you are engaging in it when you shouldn’t, like when you should be fulfilling family or work obligations. A peak surge of guilt is likely to occur just when you cease (or are forced to stop) indulging in your passion (temporarily), as you are likely to be most aware at that moment you probably shouldn’t have been doing what you were.


Obsessive passion also reveals itself by the difficulty sufferers experience in fully disengaging from thoughts about the activity. Ruminating about your passion gets in the way of concentrating properly on other aspects of your life. You will also experience withdrawal symptoms and pining for your infatuation when prevented from undertaking by the rest of life.


The more positive form of passion which Vallerand and colleagues argue exist is what they term Harmonious Passion. They invoke the concept of harmony because of the idea that your infatuation is more harmoniously integrated into the rest of your life. To put it bluntly – you actually have a life outside of the enthusiasm. You fulfill other roles and obligations separate to your craze. This means when you are pursuing your passion you do so not out of sense of compulsion but more freely. Paradoxically because you are taking part in the interest out of more free choice, you are then able to engage in it more fully, and as a result become more positively absorbed by the passion, rather than taking part more fitfully because it occupies a less than fully integrated joy.


If you have a Harmonious Passion for cycling for example you will not continue to prepare for the next race by cycling on icy roads that have become dangerous due to a cold snap. The Obsessively Passionate, on the other hand, appear unable to help themselves in the face of these kinds of ill-advised risks. As a result they come a cropper and despite their high levels of passion frequently end up taking two steps forward and one very broken one backwards.


Understanding passion appears key to grasping how excellence and elite performance are achieved. One famous study found by age 20, the top-level violinists in had practiced 2,500 hours more than the second-most accomplished group of expert violinists, and 5,000 hours more than the lowest level of experts. It is passion which sustains effort long after the repetitive, demanding and no longer theoretically enjoyable task has been given up by the less passionate.


But in their latest study, entitled ‘When winning is everything: On passion, identity, and aggression in sport’, Vallerand and colleagues argue that important though passion is in explaining and predicting elite performance and the achievement of excellence, its not just any old passion that counts, but having the right passion – the key being to go for ‘harmonious’ as opposed to ‘obsessive’ passion.


Their study of basketball players found that those who suffered from Obsessive Passion were more likely to become aggressive during play and therefore were more likely to break the rules in a way that could be disadvantageous, because they would then be penalized. If your sense of identity becomes too closely tied up with your passion, then too much becomes at stake if you are threatened by loss during a game, and this leads to defensive retaliation – defensive in the sense of having to defend the sense of self – translated into aggressive lashing out.


In contrast Vallerand and colleagues argue that the Harmoniously Passionate are more fundamentally driven to master the skills of their interest rather than focusing on winning no matter what. Identity threat distracts us, which means that superior absorption in an activity is encouraged by involvement which is not fundamentally driven by the need to protect and project the self.


Vallerand begins an older previous study on the subject of passion by citing the examples of Laurence Olivier, Rudolf Nureyev, B. B. King, and Luciano Pavarotti – some of the greatest performers of all time in their respective fields of accomplishment. Can their considerable achievements only be comprehended as the outcome of natural talent? In fact Vallerand and colleagues contend that its years of highly structured practice and very hard work which lies behind all these success stories. The question is what motivates this level of effort and Vallerand concludes passion has to be key. This explains why he opens one of his dry academic papers with the lyric from the 1980’s pop song and eponymous film Flashdance; all about climbing to the top against all odds (which could only have been made in the naked ambition power shoulder pad decade)  ‘‘Take your passion and make it happen’’


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