Athletes, as the cliché goes, try to play with “controlled aggression.” But now and then that same aggression that serves them so well during good times can get out of control in bad times. Whenever I see it happen, it makes me wonder, from a sports psychology point of view, what is making that person act the way he’s acting.
In the NBA, it has been happening throughout the season, as it usually does. Metta World Peace has had 13 suspensions in 13 seasons, all of which have resulted from his over-reacting in one way or another. The latest episode occurred in a game during the last weeks of the season, when he elbowed Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden so hard he knocked him unconscious.
The playoffs have seemed to pushed aggression into another gear, and already in the first round there have been two major meltdowns.
Celtics guard Rajon Rondo lost it toward the end of the first game between Boston and Atlanta, chest- bumping an umpire, bringing the wrath of the league and its suspension on him for one game. New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire went out of control after the second game with the Miami Heat, ramming his fist into a sheet of glass containing a fire extinguisher, taking himself out of at least one game.
Sometimes, as in Rondo’s case, a player’s aggression whirls out of control toward another person. Sometimes, as in Stoudemire’s case, the player takes out the aggression on himself. Both of them were propelled by a stressful situation that overwhelmed them and pushed them over the boundary of acceptable conduct. Rondo was reacting to a foul call he vehemently disagreed with. Stoudemire was angry about a second loss to Miami.
The bottom line here is stress. How an athlete responds to a stress depends on three factors. First, how does he interpret the stressful situation? Stoudemire obviously interpreted the second loss to Miami in a very negative way. On the other hand, his teammates, notably forward Carmelo Anthony, seemed to take the loss in stride.
Second, is the stress predictable, or is it unexpected? Research shows that stress is higher when we don’t expect something. It appears that Stoudemire, crushed by the 100-67 drubbing the Knicks received in the first game against Miami, was pumped for revenge against Miami in the second game and was therefore devastated when that expectation wasn’t met.
Finally, stress is greater when you are on the losing end of a score, especially when you have spent a whole game trying to come from behind.
Robert Sapolsky did an important study on stress a few years ago, as reported in a National Geographic documentary “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.” He studied a baboon tribe in Africa for 30 years, making detailed observations of the social hierarchy of baboons and then comparing his findings to stress levels in relation to economic status of individuals in modern corporations. He found that the dominant baboon–as well as the CEO of a company–had the lowest level of stress chemicals in their bodies. And the baboons that were lowest in the baboon hierarchy, the ones who were the most dominated and picked on, had the highest level of stress hormones.
Similarly, workers in companies who were at the lower end of the company hierarchy–for example, those who worked in the mail room–had the highest level of stress chemicals. Chronic stress by those at the bottom had an effect on their functioning. Most notably, their memory was impaired, which in turn affected their thought process and their behavior.
Athletes who are able to dominate others with their athletic prowess are going to have what Sapolsky calls good stress. “The goal in life isn’t to get rid of stress,” Sapolsky says. “The goal in life is to have the right type of stress, because when it’s the right type, we love it.” Athletes love the adrenaline rush that is associated with good stress, but when stress turns bad because an athlete feels dominated rather than dominant, that stress can turn deadly.
But stress levels only tell part of the story. How an athlete interprets a stress is often the specific thing that sends him over the edge. When Rondo was incensed that teammate Brendan Bass was whistled for a foul in the first game against Atlanta, he acted as if the referee had made not just an unacceptable call, but an outrageous call. He jumped up and argued until the referee called a technical foul. Even then he didn’t stop; he chased after the referee and chest-bumped him in the back. Obviously, reason had completely left him and an irrational force had taken hold.
Rondo’s acting out may also go back to some point in his childhood when his overreactions to stress were reinforced. In my experience as a psychotherapist, I have found that when people have an anger problem, it generally has its source in the family dynamics. For example, one of my patients remembered having temper tantrums as a child that not only succeeded in getting him attention, but had his parents bending over backwards to try to please him. If a kind of behavior is successful, why fix it?
As the NBA playoffs get into the higher rounds, I expect that incidents of stress-related overreactions will accelerate. I just hope the referees will keep things under control and we have playoffs memorable for good plays rather than bad conduct.
Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst, professor of psychology and author of 20 books. He is also an avid sports fan.