Archive for May, 2012

Bigger Than Me = Better Me

I go to church regularly.  I like my church (First Trinitarian Congo in Scituate, MA – you’re welcome to visit always and often) and I’m proud to be part of the UCC.  Furthermore, if you’ve read this blog in the past you may note that I’ve got a bit of a family history of religion (see Father, Son, Sport Psychology).  So it’s safe to say that I’m religious.

Considering this, you can imagine that Jonah Lehrer’s Does Thinking About God Improve Our Self Control caught my eye.  Beyond my genetic predisposition to religion, self control is kind of a big deal when thinking about successful athletes.  Furthermore, research makes it more and more clear that self-control can be depleted just like physical endurance.  Teaching athletes to gain self-control and also to be able to refresh their self-control is my business.  Lehrer reflects on the recent research of Rounding and his colleagues – Religion Replenishes Self-Control.  In essence a series of studies demonstrated that thoughts of faith and religion primed research participants to increased self-control.  It’s a nice piece of research and poses some good food for thought.  At risk of angering the gods (perhaps even my God), I have to wonder if these findings are a religion thing or something else.

Religious faith drives deep into our souls, has tremendous meaning, and shapes our daily actions.  It permeates society.  Even the non-religious are impacted and shaped by important faith values (this is displayed in the research of Rounding et al.).  Powerful stuff.

A sports team, running group, or exercise club is not a religious group (such comparisons strike me as being a bit profane).  Yet, clubs that create a depth of values and connectedness I suspect help individual athletes be truly bigger than themselves.  This is a challenging concept however in this day and age of self-centered striving and achievement.  The great values of play, sport, and team too often are minimized to jargon that all agree with, but don’t manage to strike deep down in the soul.  When and if they do, wouldn’t a bit of extra self-control follow?

Imagine what efforts on the playing field look like when the team logo and certain words used around the locker room and the field have meaning that is greater that the actions themselves.  We sacrifice for teammates not because it is the right thing to do, but rather because it is who we are.  Great efforts are given during great struggles not because it leads to victory, but rather because it is who we are.  We are optimistic and poised in the face of great odds not because it is urged by coaches and parents, but rather because it is who we are.  I suspect this is some of the reason religious ideas seem to cue self-control.  They are supportive, comforting, non-judgmental, and pervasive in one’s life.

Perhaps it is a tall task to ask a coach, athletic program, or team to deliver such a powerful culture, but it does happen – look close, the greatest successes on the playing field seem to have a bit of it.  The endeavor of sport is made much bigger than a team or individual, yielding implicit strength and support during the competitive struggle.  I’ve often been found saying about great teams, “they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.”  There is little “trying”  and “thinking” to do the right thing.  Instead it is just part of the fabric of competitive life.  Beyond the thoughts and actions, there is an implicit belief in what they are doing allows them to focus rather getting caught up in the mumbo jumbo of sport.

I am not sure that Rounding’s research is just about religion.  It does highlight that religious doctrine is really tremendous (perhaps the best thing out there) at impacting human beings and creating self control.  Religion is cool; try it.  Whether you do or do not, there are some great lessons to be learned for creating powerful communities of excellence.  Believing is something a bit bigger than one’s self – it certainly helps in daily striving on and off the field.

Stop Huffing & Puffing and Give the Guy a Break

Aubrey Huff of the San Francisco Giants is the most recent of a batch of prominent MLB players who have gone on the disabled list with an emotional disorder.  While many across the blogosphere and within the sports-talk radio community express little sympathy over the anxiety afflicting a guy making $11 million per year to play a kid’s game, I suspect these ‘haters’ are missing something.  They’re failing to identify something human and imperfect found even amongst big-time athletes whose symmetrical faces, seemingly impenetrable confidence, and flawless physical movements are splashed all over prime-time television.  Fame and financial security are wonderful rewards of a professional athlete, yes, but this is often accompanied by an overwhelming stress to meet expectations.  And nobody knows the extent of this stress – not the media, not coaches, not us sport psych professionals – expect the athlete him or herself.

 

Yet some wonderfully interesting findings have emerged in recent research, particularly relevant to situations like Huff’s, that may offer a glimpse into his experience and others’ in high-stakes, big-money positions.

 

In sports, it’s often assumed that the more people are paid, the harder they will work, and the better they will do their jobs — until, of course, they reach the limits of their skills. That notion tends to hold true when the stakes are low; however new research from Caltech suggests that when there are high financial incentives to succeed, people can become so afraid of losing their potentially lucrative reward – or, for those who are guaranteed a certain reward, their reputation or social standing – that their performance suffers.  Some fascinating experiments were conducted that demonstrated that performance improves as incentives increase — but only when the reward amounts were at the low end of the spectrum. Once the rewards pass a certain threshold (which depends on the individual athlete), performance begins to fall off.

 

In other words, the more loss-averse an athlete is, the more likely he or she will fall victim to this.  According to the lead author of the study who conducted the experiments, when loss-aversive people see the incentive that they’re being offered, they initially encode it as a gain, and parts of the brain that are associated with incentives are activated.  This causes performance enhancement initially.  But once they started doing the task and incentives began to rise, the same brain area decreased in activity, and performance worsened. Rising incentives prompted worry about losing something they haven’t even received yet (in the study’s case, it was money; however loss-aversive athletes may have similar maladaptive reactions to potentially losing something other than money, like admiration, teammate/family support, fan approval, etc.)

 

Maybe training somebody like Huff to be less loss-averse may help him avoid performing poorly in stressful situations.  But the fact remains that nobody can appreciate what Aubrey Huff is experiencing, and the more these cases are brought into public light, the better able sports media and fans will be to understand.  Exercise some empathy and give him a break.


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