In a theoretical poll of 1,000 triathletes, 999 would describe themselves as having a “Type A” personality. The one outlier would assert that he was in fact a “Type A+.”
The term “Type A” has been so overused in popular culture (and particularly in multisport circles) that I would assert that few even understand what the label entails. Instead, they simply assume that having a Type A personality is a requisite trait for swimming, biking and running successfully. Perhaps it is listed somewhere on their prerace checklist somewhere between swim goggles and aero helmet. Or perhaps it is used as a measure of potential – we may soon see overanxious age groupers pedaling away on trainers whilst connected with wires and tubes to computers that calculate both their VO2 max and Type A capacity.
Our culture shares this view in part because the term itself has become associated with winners. Type A’s are driven and do what it takes to succeed. Type B’s meander through life devoid of ambition and rarely amount to anything, but they are okay with that because they Type B’s. Even the labels themselves invite a grade school comparison – who wants to be a “B” when they can be an “A?”
With that in mind, I’d like to clarify a few things about the Type A cliché.
The often unknown truth about this popular label is that it was developed by a Doctor Meyer Friedman back in the 1950’s to characterize those traits evident in people who were at risk for cardiac problems. He and an associate observed that regardless of other known factors like diet and cholesterol, personal dispositions seemed to contribute greatly to individuals’ potential for heart attacks. Simply put, Type A people who appeared chronically angry and impatient were at a much greater risk for cardiac problems than their mellower Type B counterparts. Their findings were published in the book “Type A Behavior and Your Heart" in 1974 and the Type A label has permeated Western culture even since.
To be fair, many of the traits that Friedman used to describe Type A’s may apply to your stereotypical triathlete: being inflexibly ambitious and competitive, fostering an inherent urge for recognition, being emotionally tied to productivity, and being chronically impatient with themselves and others. We are racers, after all. And the goal of a race is to beat the other racers, to beat the clock - to win. It seems only logical that being a winner and being a Type A would go hand-in-hand.
But Dr. Friedman, a self-diagnosed Type A, explained that “Type A personalities who succeed do so in spite of their impatience and hostility." In fact, most of Friedman’s work done with patients was towards the goal of helping Type A’s emulate Type B traits. As Friedman explained, Type B’s were no less ambitious than their Type A counterparts, but were able to accept the imperfection and lack of control inherent in real life circumstances that often left type A’s paralyzed and frustrated. Additionally, the patience and communication skills demonstrated by Type B’s made them far more successful in interpersonal relationships.
In light of this, you may want to think twice the next time you start to label yourself as a Type A, keeping in mind that you’re not really saying that you’re a self-driven winner - you're saying that you're an asshole that is probably destined for a heart attack.