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A question of sport – healthy ambition

02 July 2021

Oliver James, The School of Life (external contributor) 

After nearly a year and a half without any major sporting events, the past week has been fairly momentous for the UK. England is through to the quarter finals of the Euros and, once again, the grass courts of Wimbledon are filled with championship hopefuls.

As audiences whoop and cheer around them, camera lenses around the world hone in on these sportsmen and women. These are individuals who have dedicated their lives to their sport, the epitome of hard work and dedication. They are fuelled by tremendous ambition, that gets them through the long hours, pain and frustration that accompanies a life in sport. But how can you be both ambitious and emotionally healthy? Oliver James explores the concept of healthy ambition below.

“In the 1960s, Laszlo Polgar was a Hungarian educational psychologist who had written several scientific papers on the effectiveness of practice in creating excellence. As was common behind the Iron Curtain, he used pen pal letters to communicate with young people in other countries, and through one of them he met a Ukrainian woman, Klara. He explained his passionate conviction that excellence can be nurtured to her and she fell for him, as well as his arguments. They agreed to have children and to turn them into chess grandmasters, choosing that game because it has an incontestable, objective metric by which achievement can be measured.

Polgar was a mathematician by specialism; doubtless that helped in his plan. But he was not exceptional, so it is not valid to object that he passed genes for exceptional pattern recognition to his children. He played the game as a hobby; his wife did not play at all. Having read up on the best means for teaching it, he prepared to conduct his unusual experiment.

As luck would have it, Klara gave birth to three daughters. There had been no female grandmasters, and it was widely assumed that females were born less capable of the mental activity entailed to be exceptional at chess. If he could create a female grandmaster it would be all the more telling, since the administrators of world chess forbade the participation of women in top tournaments.

Starting with his eldest daughter Susan, Polgar was careful to treat it as a playful activity, turning it into a fantasy of dramatic wins and losses. By the time she turned five she was excited by playing and spent hundreds of hours practising. Entered in a local competition, she treated it as fun, winning 10-0, causing a sensation. Meanwhile, her younger sisters were intrigued by this activity and Laszlo allowed them to feel the pieces, seeing them as toys, without giving any formal tuition until they were aged five.

Interviewed recently, all three girls described playing the game as something that they loved doing; it never seemed like a chore. Instead of messing about playing Monopoly, netball or going to the local swimming pool, chess was just what they enjoyed in the Polgar family.

Sure enough, in 1991 the eldest daughter became the first female grandmaster. The second daughter had ten straight wins against male grandmasters, a performance rated the fifth best in the history of chess. Her younger sister became a grandmaster at the age of 15, the youngest ever (of either gender).

It is a matter of record that Polgar had declared his intention of creating grandmasters before his children were born. Neither he nor his wife were talented in relevant skills. It is very hard to argue with this story as evidence for the overpowering importance of nurture rather than nature in causing exceptional chess achievement. But more than that, it is interesting in terms of how to create emotionally healthy high achievers, as opposed to the many highly distressed ones.

That Polgar understood the need not to coerce his daughters into playing is clear; he grasped that small children need to enjoy fantasy play. Consequently, his daughters all seem to have grown into satiable, well-balanced people rather than hungry success addicts. There is no guarantee in any case that rigorously hothousing children produces exceptional achievers (it often produces, at best, prodigies who do not usually go on to be exceptional and who are liable to suffer emotional problems). 

Prominent prodigious sportsmen who became desperately unhappy include tennis star, Bjorn Borg, the cricketer, Marcus Trescothick and the rugby football phenomenon, Jonny Wilkinson. All of them were driven in a quite different way from the Polgar sisters, externally rather than self-motivated.

A strong clue to the dynamics of the Polgar family comes from a fascinating footnote to the story.  When the eldest daughter had been crowned as the first female grandmaster, forcing the sport's organisers to change their rules, a Dutch billionaire offered to pay for him to adopt three boys from a developing nation to show that the experiment could be replicated. Polgar was keen on the idea but his wife turned it down.

A relaxed, warm woman, unmotivated by money or fame, she felt they had already made their point and that to do it again would take more energy than she had. In all likelihood, she had given her daughters a very solid early infancy and secure life as toddlers, standing them in good stead for the pressures of top chess competition. On top of that, it suggests she was not someone who would coerce them. Just as her husband had conducted the experiment in nurture with full awareness of the need for small children to live in la-la land for much of the time, so she had provided the loving, responsive base which is the foundation of emotional health.”

We partnered with The School of Life on this essay on ‘Healthy ambition’, part of a series of philosophical essays which explores 12 important life areas and which we see as a conduit to developing a deeper understanding of the issues that drive attitudes to wealth. Read more from ‘Healthy ambition’ here.


Read more from The Brief.

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