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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