A psychologist's perspective on the world of sports
An ESPN.com article (http://espn.go.com/chicago/nfl/story/_/id/7497340/chicago-bears-brian-urlacher-gets-shots-lie-stay-field) reports recent quotes from Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher while appearing on HBO’s “Real Sports.” On the show, Urlacher acknowledged being injected with a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug known as Toradol between 40 and 50 times throughout his career. According to ESPN.com, when “Real Sports” interviewer Andrea Kremer pointed out that regularly using Toradol can lead to kidney failure and gastrointestinal bleeding, Urlacher said that he did not know of the risks, but, to him, they really do not matter. Even knowing the risks, Urlacher claimed that he would still take a shot of the drug, and cited loving football and wanting to be on the field as much as possible as reasons for such risk taking.
This indifference to the long-term effects of substances is hardly a new finding with athletes. Perhaps one of the most salient examples is the 1995 poll conducted by the IAAF of 198 sprinters, swimmers, powerlifters, and other athletes who were current or aspiring U.S. Olympians. This poll presented 2 scenarios. First, you are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance with two guarantees: (a) you will not be caught and (b) you will win. Would you take the substance? Second, you are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance that comes with two guarantees: (a) you will not be caught and (b) you will win every competition you enter for the next 5 years and then die from the side effects of the substance. Would you take the substance? Shockingly, 98% of the athletes answered “yes” to the first scenario and 60% answered “yes” to the second scenario.
Both Urlacher’s quotes and this 1995 poll serve as striking indicators of what athletes are willing to sacrifice to attain immediate success in their sports. This mentality seems crucial to understand as we interpret athlete behavior with regard to high-profile issues like steroid use and concussions.
This topic often results in fascinating discussions in the undergraduate Sport Psychology course I teach. What are your thoughts?
I recently joined a new gym and admittedly was dreading the often strings-attached promo of meeting with a personal trainer for an initial consultation. It is not that I have anything at all against personal trainers. In fact, I think they provide an incredibly important service. It is just that I have been through this so many times before and I wondered if I would learn anything new. Also, I have had experiences where it seemed like the trainer wanted to be anywhere but offering an initial consultation to a new member.
Boy, did it feel good to be surprised and re-energized about fine-tuning my workout plan. The key: my trainer used a creative self-monitoring approach. One of the surest ways for any behavior change to fail is to be told a list of goals by someone else and then not establish any way to track progress toward or adaptation of those goals. Presumably knowing this, my trainer, who is also a competitive mixed martial artist, began by having me brainstorm a list of fifteen common body movements (e.g., push, twist, etc.), a task I found surprisingly effortful to do on the spot, even with my education in biomechanics. He then had me select the ten that I was most interested in and proceeded to suggest a circuit of exercises involving those movements that I could work through on a brief trial run. Importantly, he had ME write out this impromptu protocol and suggest any modifications to his suggestions. He next had me progress through our circuit and then we regrouped to re-evaluate, making minor tweaks before I went through it again. Also importantly, he had me take my written protocol with me and assigned me homework of working through and tailoring it further.
Whether he knew it or not, my trainer used a variety of self-monitoring principles that made it much more likely I will repeat and build upon the regimen. He had me set concrete goals, take personal responsibility for them, and write them down. He encouraged flexibility, tracking, and modeled effective follow up. Further, he provided feedback and encouragement so I clearly knew where I was at baseline and what my areas for growth might be. Perhaps most importantly, his approach fostered creativity and fun, so that, when I left, I was excited to return and see how I could improve next time.
It was very cool as a treatment provider to be the recipient of these behavioral techniques. The experience served as a powerful reminder about just how well these principles can work.
There seems to be an epidemic of stress in our culture. Most of us just stay “plugged in,” accessible via cell phone, text message, email, Facebook, and other media 24 hours per day. We rarely get the opportunity to truly unwind and relax. As a result, we may be forgetting what relaxation really is. In fact, there has been some suggestion that our minds may be getting addicted to or dependent upon the stimulation of stress. Just take a look around a subway car or doctor’s office and see what people are doing when they have a moment to stop and quietly wait for something.
Many of my clients have insisted that, while having a casual conversation in my office, their bodies are relaxed, yet a quick litmus test reveals that they are actually in a state of tension. Our stress response evolved as an alarm system to danger, yet now it appears that many of us just stay in that heightened sense of arousal by default. A scary prospect with serious health implications.
This epidemic also has serious implications for athletic performance. Most of the existing evidence regarding peak-performance states suggests that playing relaxed is crucial. Athletes under stress are often over-aroused, which can be disruptive to both attention and muscle coordination. When stressed, the mind tends to wander from the task at hand and often gravitates toward whatever we are stressed about, almost always some possible future consequence. Our muscles react to stress by tensing up, which can throw off the fluidity of coordination. It can make it extremely difficult to execute a sport skill if one’s mind is elsewhere and one’s muscles are tight, plus one might be left more vulnerable to injury.
Staying in a condition of stress for an extended period of time can result in prolonged performance slumps for an athlete, and even culminate in conditions like staleness and burnout, which is essentially complete physical and emotional exhaustion. Burnout is a major problem in today’s world of sport where specialization among athletes is beginning at younger and younger ages and there is frequently no true off season.
The good news is that, once one is aware of its presence, stress and the resultant over-arousal can be quite manageable. Very few phenomena about the human body are all or none, but the stress response appears to be one of them. We are either stressed or relaxed so, by definition, if we can find a way to relax, then we are no longer stressed. Psychological research has supported a number of techniques that can effectively reduce stress.
To me, perhaps the simplest and most effective relaxation technique is breath control. When the body is stressed, the breath is usually quick and shallow, with the most movement visible in the chest region. When it is relaxed, the breath typically slows and deepens, with the most movement visible in the belly region. Relaxed breathing is often known as “diaphragmatic breathing” and is a clear, tangible indicator that the body is in a state of relaxation. You can test yourself right now by putting one hand on your chest and the other on your belly and seeing which one is more definitively rising and falling. If you are breathing from your chest, try relaxing your stomach muscles and directing your airflow down into your belly. Take a few breaths this way and see if you notice any differences? Breath control is a great way to both assess yourself for stress and to initiate a relaxation response, whether you are sitting at home on the couch or out on the field competing.
There was a powerful article in The New York Times this week about Derek Boogaard, an NHL player who died earlier this year from what was ruled an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. Boogaard had been an “enforcer” in the league, a position that has become part of the common hockey lexicon, but does not appear in the official rulebook. Enforcers are usually known more for their abilities to fight and intimidate than their skills handling or scoring the puck. The article suggests that hockey enforcers essentially sacrifice their brain cells to maintain and further their careers and when Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy examined Boogaard’s brain after his death, they found pervasive damage that likely would have resulted in middle-aged dementia had Boogaard survived.
It seems that more and more stories are breaking about athletes suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition associated with debilitating effects like memory loss, mood disturbance, and addiction that appears to be caused by repeated blows to the head. These cases do not just involve older or retired athletes, but athletes like Boogaard who are in their prime, or even younger. This is scary stuff, but the article mentions that most enforcers do not even acknowledge concussions and that teams have been guilty of disguising concussions on their injury reports. The NHL also appears to be unconvinced that there is any association between playing hockey and CTE despite the statistics coming out in sports involving frequent head trauma. Certainly, further research is necessary, but articles like this one provide a sobering reminder of how much further sport culture has to go in developing a full appreciation for the impact of concussions.