Tuesday, March 20, 2007

This I Believe: Sports as Teachers

This week instead of writing an opinion, I wanted to share a personal belief that I hold about sports and their psychological effects, so that you my readers may better understand me, and the stance from which I view the world. My motivation was taken from the "This I Believe" national media project (their logo is pictured right), the purpose of which is to engage people "in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide their daily lives." My daily life is largely consumed by my devotion to cheerleading—I am the President of my cheer club at USC, and I also serve as the Captain of my particular team. As a cheerleader, I have absolutely no doubt that playing sports has helped build my moral character—both good and bad aspects—into what it is today. I believe that sports have the capacity to teach participants the vital principles in life, such as selflessness, hard work, honesty, and perseverance, and that those who play a sport are morally more experienced than those who do not. Any person who has partaken in a sport can easily identify the basic beneficial values one develops from encountering the athletic world. Teamwork, friendship, goal-setting, and leadership are all obvious principles that can be seen on the surface; however, I believe sports have the unique ability to teach more subtle morals, such as those involved with loss, failure, and picking oneself up.

In a game, players are faced with many moral dilemmas both on and off the field. For instance, when the referee is not looking, who is there to call an athlete on bad sportsmanship? Many players in contact sports will take cheap shots at each other simply because they think they can get away with it. In some extreme cases, such as when NHL player Chris Simon took a "vicious two-handed stick swing to the face" of Ryan Hollweg with his hockey stick (pictured left), the offender does not end up getting away with their immoral actions. Although they may still learn a lesson from their punishment, unacceptable acts are looked down upon and shameful. On the opposite hand, I believe someone who makes a conscious decision to do the right thing (such as a football player who resists the temptation to grab a face mask when bringing a man down) is rewarded with pride and learns that doing things the honest way is psychologically rewarding, especially in regards to their self-esteem. So, although it may seem as though unsportsman-like players do not care what their actions are, I think the result of any decision is a valuable lesson learned by the athlete.

Soccer is an example of a sport where the fans actually receive just as many moral teachings as the competitors themselves. Both soccer players and fans are infamous for running amok in hosting towns; watching one game of World Cup Soccer feels more like watching an acting class than a sporting event when the participants fake their injuries to draw fouls. The lesson they learn comes from the fact that this pretending works very little, and referees are actually less likely to sympathize with the player who constantly acts hurt. This is referred to as "crying wolf," where a person's dishonesty can impair other's judgments and affect their future opinions. In comparison, the fans of soccer (especially in Europe) let their emotions get the best of them as they run wild through towns after winning a game, destroying everything in their path and sometimes assaulting supporters of the opposing team. The moral people learn from this is that disrespecting others and their property leads to resentment and mutual disrespect, which can lead to a snowball effect. In fact, fan clubs of soccer teams in England have become so rowdy that riot police have been called out to subdue the crowd, as was the case during a day in the FIFA 2006 World Cup,when English and German fans suddenly started "throwing bottles and chairs and trading punches." Many English fans, such as the one pictured to the right, were arrested and put in German jails for disturbing the peace.

Learning from immoral acts is not just contained to the actual game or match; much of what athletes learn comes from the everyday practice of their activity. For instance the use of anabolic steroids (some examples are pictured left) to enhance muscle-building capability is not illegal in baseball, but it certainly gives the consumer a great advantage over his competitors. Sports were meant to test the limits of the human body, so by taking steroids, a person is cheating their competitors—and themselves—of a fair match. Ethics concerning performance-enhancing drugs have recently been a large issue, simply because the utilization of them is so widespread at all levels of play. The use of steroids teaches a hard lesson: while immediate gratification may be a result, the side effects in the future may not be worth taking the drug. In addition to the potential negative results, a moral lesson is given in the form of lessened pride—knowing that anything achieved was not solely because of hard work, but partly because of an external factor that could be considered cheating.

While certain morals are obviously taught through participation in sports, some are more subtle and require closer examination. I, for one, have put to practice all the morals by which I stand during my cheerleading career, and I am proud to say that I have made good decisions.
All moral lessons (good or bad) taught by sports are important and relevant to every day life, and those who take these lessons to heart are better for it. I know I am.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

For the Sake of the Sport: The Psychological Aspects of Athlete Burn-Out

Many young professional athletes face a tough life ahead of them: not as a result of the difficulty of their respective sports, but because of the looming threat of athlete burn-out. Players such as Michelle Wie (pictured left)—seventeen years old and already participating in professional golf tournaments—and Andrew Bynum (pictured below, to the right)—nineteen years old and currently the youngest NBA team member—are in serious jeopardy of losing their passion for sport simply because they jumped head-first into the highest (and most serious) level of compeitition too soon. Although I understand that one who is talented enough to be able to play with the professionals should be allowed to do so, I beg that athlete to reconsider his or her choice to compete so fiercely, as they may later find that the pressures of high-stake sports can cause them to be entirely disenchanted with a game they once loved.

Burn-out, as defined by mental and physical health guide Selfhelp Magazine, is a phenomenon in which an athlete loses interest or motivation in their sport, and "[drops/quits] their activity." It can occur for several reasons, according to Mind Tools (a site dedicated to the enhancement of everyday life): for example, an overly demanding coach, radically intense stress for great lengths of time, or setting too many goals too high. The results of these triggers are two-fold: physically, the athlete will experience "intense fatigue," "vulnerability to viral infection," and immune system deficiencies. Mentally, however, the damage is much worse—feelings of a "loss of a sense of purpose and energy," a "growing tendency to think negatively," and "incorrect belief that [they] are accomplishing less." These psychological factors also have an effect on the athlete's personal life; players can show an increasing detachment from personal relationships and stress or conflict that stems from this can add to the hardship of burn-out, causing a vicious cycle.

As the minimum age threshold for professional athletes gets younger, I believe the risk of burn-out gets elevated. For example, the youngest NBA players' ages have been slowly declining over the past decades, so not surprisingly the rate of turnover has been rising in response. The table to the left, with data collected by RPIRatings.com in October of 2006, shows all of the participants in the NBA and their corresponding years of experience as a professional basketballer. More than half of the men in the NBA are rookies, or have one, two, or three years of experience. I believe this is mostly due to the fact that adolescents are generally more susceptible to the stressors of life (because they have fewer experiences which allow them to handle high pressure situations), and young professional athletes are especially vulnerable because of their incredibly publicized lives. The high hopes as a result of too much publicity can be overwhelming for an adolescent, whereas if they were given a little while more to mature, they may be able to better cope with those expectations. Although I realize that the select few athletes who are deserving of this attention must be more mature than others their age in some way (probably just physically), the fact still stands that they do not have the mental maturity level to know how to properly handle the stress and publicity in a healthy manner. As a result of this lack of knowledge, youthful athletes will be more likely to buckle under the pressure, and will therefore be more likely to burn out before an older, more stable adult would.

This phenomenon can be avoided by taking simple, general steps. According to Mind Tools, the first step is "learn stress management skills." If a player does not deal with stress well, they cannot survive the intense level of play on which professional sports thrive. Second, setting personal goals that are achievable is important for self-esteem and motivation. A lot of burn-outs are caused by unrealistic goal setting, which is followed by failure to achieve those goals, and a sense of lack of control that can be a factor of burn-out. Third, "get the support of your friends and family in reducing stress." If a coach only has an eye for winning, they may go to great lengths at the expense of the athlete in order to achieve that goal. This can lead to unhealthy workouts and even higher expectations and stress levels. The most important idea to remember, however, is that sports are supposed to be fun. If no one had fun playing sports, then sports would not exist! It is hard to remember this fact when speaking of professional games, as this is the athlete's livelihood; however, those who make it to that level of play are most likely those who love the sport the most. To avoid burn-out, one must enjoy what they do, even if the intensity is very high. If a player loses sight of this fact, and turns professional for other reasons (money, publicity, etc.), they will burn out quickly. Unfortunately, it seems as though many adolescent professional athletes today are turning professional for those other reasons, and I fear their respective sports will lose great young players at a faster rate than they should.