Thursday, March 18, 2010

Women and Children First?

I'm not sure whether or not I can make a connection to sport here or not, but I'll try anyway! The Week magazine recently reported about a study in which Australian researchers looked at what occurred immediately during the minutes and hours during the rescues of the Titanic and the Lusitania. They found that the percentage of women and children who were rescued from the Titanic, which took about 3 hours to sink, was much greater than the percentage of women and children rescued from the Lusitania, which took a mere 18 minutes to sink.

The hypothesis is that altruism is suppressed during those first minutes of crisis when the survival instinct is at its peak. And , once people have the time to ponder their values, that they then make different (in this case, more altruistic) decisions. There are numerous incidents of poor decision-making in sport (and of course, other situations) that are made in the heat of the moment. When the game is on the line, and something goes wrong, there is a strong instinct to react in a more primal way, not always one that is consistent with what one values personally, or even with what is best competitively.

Take, for instance, the age old situation of the basketball player who drives to the basket and misses an easy shot. Her opponent grabs the rebound and, in frustration, the player who missed the shot immediately fouls that player. The coach gets mad, her teammates glare at her, and the player who just fouled walks back down the court hanging her head with the full weight of knowledge that she let some sort of base pissed-off-ness get the better of her. And even in other sports, we know that it's usually the second fouler that gets caught by the official.

Seems like an excellent training ground to teach the benefit of restraint, or perhaps the re-channeling of emotion. Ultimately, a player wants to win. By mastering the emotional part of the game -- recognizing when an instinctual act may harm the team -- an athlete can gain a useful skill that can be used to great advantage outside the bounds of the athletic arena. In a March 9, 2010 posting on Fair Game News, Laura Pappano makes an excellent point about the recent incident where college basketball player Brittney Griner punched an opponent after tangling with her under the basket.

"If we believe competitive sports teach lessons that matter as much off the field as on, then let’s not just sit back and hope lessons emerge. A 19-year-old freshman like Griner may not intuitively be able to handle the pressure (including expectations that she is the future of women’s basketball), without explicit support. If press reports are even half right, Griner will someday be both a superstar and a stand-up person. But players (especially those with targets on their uniforms) must be taught to shrug off trash talk and physical contact under the basket; not everyone is comes to college play with that skill."

Rappano addresses the developmental aspect of this perfectly. Many athletes don't come pre-packaged with that restraint, particularly those under a great deal of pressure to perform. While we can't excuse such behavior, we also need to see it in its developmental context and seek to help athletes gain the skills that will do them good once they enter the working world.

I've coached "hot heads" before. I think I actually was one as an athlete for awhile (at least that's what some of my former coaches have told me). They have their place on a team. They can be inspirational leaders, can bring positive and passionate emotion to a team when it is in the midst of crisis and needs a lift. Learning the skill to channel that instinct of emotion in crisis, so that it helps, not hurts, the team is the trick. It's hard. Being in the middle of a hotly-contested game, for someone who is innately competitive, is a difficult place to cool your head. And sometimes you don't even want to cool your head as much as you want to channel it. Luckily, most careers, seasons, and games, last more than the 18 minutes it took to sink the Lusitania.

I once heard a sports psychologist who worked with Charles Barkley talk about how he helped the basketball player gain control of his emotion during the game. Barkley, who played with lots of emotion ( and still is not a master of restraint when he speaks his mind!) used to get extremely mad at himself when he missed an easy basket or made a stupid mistake. And he couldn't shake that emotion. Using a Keep It Simple Stupid method, the psychologist taught Barkley to, as soon as he made the mistake and started to get mad, say to himself "STOP." This unspoken mantra was powerful for Barkely who, at least according to this psychologist, was able to master his emotion by using the technique and immediately focus on what he had to do next.

I don't think Barkley's next thought after "STOP" led to thoughts about how he could save as many women and children as possible, but it probably allowed him to help his teammates win a few more games.

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