What’s New in the World of Sports?
In this article, Heywood argues that current research in sports sociology and kinesiology focuses too much on the macro- and micro-level details of how sports affect human emotions, but neither delves into an “embodied theory of the emotions.” She suggests that using an evolutionary perspective appropriately includes how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) responds to the psychological atmosphere of sports.
Heywood also promotes a new model of sports, called “immersive sports” which combine the benefits of competitive athletics and recreational play and could integrate sports psychology into the field of neuroanthropology and improve coaching methods to push for greater emotional and public health.
Affect and Evolution
The author introduces Panksepp, a leading affective neurobiologist who researches the organization of affect in the brain. Where in our brains do we process and embody certain emotions? Panksepp proposes seven core emotional systems that combine neural mechanics with emotion: (1) seeking, (2) rage, (3) fear, (4) lust, (5) care, (6) panic and (7) play. In this model, seeking is the underlying emotional system, upon which all others compound.
Rage Against the Competition
The two older models of sports are competitive and participatory. The competitive model values winning and achieving goals, whereas participatory is for recreational purposes. The author posits that competitive sports could be linked to a feeling of threat. On the other hand, participatory sports provide a sense of safety.
As mentioned previously, seeking is the basis for all affective systems. This system is activated in both competitive and participatory sports and is the motivation seeker of the emotional systems.
In addition to seeking, competitive play also activates the rage system, linked to fear, which processes environmental threats (in this case, threat to one’s status) and causes assertiveness and aggression. This type of sport tends to prioritize winning, and therefore often deters those who are not the most athletic, but who simply want to have fun playing a sport.
Conversely, in participatory sports models, play is the other affect experienced, not rage, as the threat to one’s rank no longer exits in this atmosphere. The author argues that the main point of this emotional system is to process feelings of safety and to force the brain to be more socialized.
A Rookie Model
Heywood advocates for a new sport modality, the immersive sports, which combine both participatory and competitive to maximize the benefits of each, limiting as many negative effects as possible. Like the other two modes, the immersive model is driven by the Seeking affective system , which activates the mesolithic dopamine system to create good feelings or an artificial high for the athlete.
The cornerstone of this model is a sort of hyper focus, or “flow” (Mihali Csíkszentmihályi). During this time, the athlete’s consciousness is centered solely on the sport, which can only be achieved in a safe environment. This is why the immersive sports models aims to eliminate the sense of threat of competitive sports without limiting the empowerment of competition.
Stephen Porges uses his Polyvagal Theory to explain how evolutionary alterations to the ANS change emotional patterns and access. Neuroception assesses the danger of a situation and initiates a series of response pathways beginning with the newest, Social Engagement System (SES) on the ventral vagal complex, to Fight or Flight, to the oldest neural pathway on the UNmyelinated vagus nerve, paralysis and out-of-body sensations. In order to reach the level of focus discussed in “flow,” an athlete must be able to eliminate the fight/flight sensation (by eliminating the threat to one’s rank) and only use the first neural pathway, the SES.
Combining the theories of Panksepp and Porges, Heywood argues that a poor familial environment can play a major role in the athlete’s neuroception and can render them unable to pacify the fight/flight reaction.
So, What Now?
Heywood promotes a new field of research, a cultural neuropsychology of sport, which examines these evolutionary affective systems in relation to cultural norms. She mentions analyzing cultural resistances to certain populations participating in sports as well as incorporating familial environment, reaction to disturbances, and personality into the study.
Understanding these evolutionary mechanisms behind emotion and affect could inform and drive changes in modern coaching and even parenting styles. We know now that extreme pressure in a competitive sport environment can inhibit the suppression of the fight/flight response and prevent the athlete from accessing that intense, optimal performance, “flow” state. Promoting a feeling of safety in all sports could also recruit others who are hesitant due to the competitive threat of some teams and improve public health initiatives.
I think this article did a really great job of incorporating the neurobiological and evolutionary aspects of neuroanthropology. That being said, I think it could have delved a bit more into the cultural nature of this research, as I imagine it would be very interesting to examine these affective systems cross-culturally in relation to the athletic atmosphere. I appreciate that the culture aspect was mentioned in the end; I just wish it were incorporated more throughout the article.
Reading this article, I thought back to our discussion about parenting and child development last week. We talked about parents who force their children to do certain activities, versus those who allow their children to choose their own activities and those with unstructured playtime. Could parental desire for their children to do well provide an additional sense of threat to competitive sports that further drives the fight or flight response, prohibiting the access of the peak focus? Or could it activate different systems like the fear system, if the child is afraid of disappointing their parent?
- How does this topic relate to our previous discussions of embodiment?
- How do you think different parenting styles might affect these core emotional systems?
- Can you think of other benefits or drawbacks of competitive sports that were not mentioned in the article?
- Can you think of any real life examples of immersive sports models other than those mentioned in the article?