GAME ON: Sport, Play, and Healthy Competition

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about ways of knowing. Different fields prioritize different forms of knowledge. For a field like neuroanthropology, and anthropology more generally, there has been a struggle to define how we should know what we know. Personally, I believe that a healthy dose of both subjective contextual experience and objective neuroscience are necessary for a more complete understanding of phenomena. Leslie L. Heywood also calls for this approach in her 2011 article “Affective infrastructures: toward a cultural neuropsychology of sport.”

Photograph of Dr. Leslie Heywood, borrowed with permission from her website.
Photograph of Dr. Leslie Heywood, borrowed with permission from her website.

Leslie L. Heywood is a true example of the discipline-defying researcher. She holds a B.A. and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Irvine. All the same, her work is infused with a hearty interest in affective neuroscience and physiology. These undercurrents seem to be a direct product of her experience as an athlete and coach. Heywood was a track star at the University of Arizona, earning the title Arizona State Champion in both the 800 and 1,600 meters. She was also ranked fifth in the U.S., held the state record for the mile for over two decades among other achievements.   What I find most impressive about Heywood’s athletic history is that it was not the product of a single passion.   After injury, Heywood transitioned into powerlifting and excelled as a strength training coach. More recently, marathon preparation led her to CrossFit as a participant and trainer.

This passion for an active lifestyle is often reflected in her research (Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Bodybuilding, Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon, etc.). What is also evident in her varied career as an athlete and coach is her willingness to traverse institutional boundaries. Heywood , currently a professor of English at Binghamton University, is a member of the executive committee for Evolutionary Studies. She’s a published poet, editor of Ragazine:, and guest editor of an issue of Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience (where this article appears!). Now, back to the article at hand!

Personal Website

Curriculum Vitae

Identification of GAPS in research

The goal of every researcher is to produce new knowledge or to look at things in a new and potentially more productive way. The first step is always to identify current gaps in the literature. Heywood notes that while sport sociology focuses on the forest, sport psychology and kinesiology focus on the trees. Furthermore, none of these fields include the idea of embodiment, of lived experience, in their research. Some important factors being excluded from the picture are the social and familial contexts for individual athletes, the complexity of the brain-body-emotion relationship, and the affective consciousness of emotions. Heywood argues that an evolutionary perspective of emotion is more comprehensive than these previous, gap-ridden models. Furthermore, she offers the field of neuroanthropology the first swing of the bat.

Panksepp’s affective neuroscience

Founded by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, the field of affective neuroscience purports that emotions are the manifestation of biological and neural processes, processes that are influenced by the body, environment, and culture. Heywood uses Panksepp’s (1998) “core emotional systems” to understand play. Like the deadly sins, Panksepp lists 7 core emotional systems: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC, and PLAY. Sport mainly involves the SEEKING, RAGE, and PLAY systems. Since SEEKING is a system based on motivation to fulfill an appetite for goods or meaning, it serves as the initiator of other emotional systems. SEEKING involves the hypothalmus and the mesolimbic dopamine system. The system of PLAY is active in the medial zones of the thalamus and promotes safe engagement. The system of RAGE is found in the amygdala, specifically the corticomedial areas, and is connected to the medial hypothalamus by the stria terminalis. RAGE is associated with the system of FEAR/PANIC.

In terms of sport

SEEKING/RAGE in the sport of Put Put.
SEEKING/RAGE in the sport of Put Put.

Two models have predominated our view of sport. The competitive model activates the SEEKING/RAGE systems. In this model, sport is seen as “a means to an end.” In dominant ideology, competition reigns. Few are the victors, which makes winning all that sweeter. No one likes to lose. However, there are those that attach intrinsic worth to participating in sport. Those that “prefer to play for fun” represent the participation model which invokes the SEEKING/PLAY systems.

SEEKING/PLAY in Wake Forest University's Unpredictable Race, 2011.
SEEKING/PLAY in Wake Forest University’s Unpredictable Race, 2011.

Heywood offers a third model termed the “immersive model” which aims at maximizing the positives and minimizing the negatives of the competitive model. Heywood argues that competitive play can promote intra-group bonding and empower marginalized individuals or groups. On the other hand, competitive play tends to worship ability. In my opinion, this obsession with skill is in some ways very similar to our culture’s obsession over body image. The result is the same: an exclusion of the masses. Heywood’s new model focuses on Mihali Csikszentmihályi’s term of “flow.” In a sporting context, “flow” can be described as being “in the zone.” It is a focused attention that can only occur in a safe context. This perceived “safety” is directly linked to the social and familial context of the athlete.

"In the zone" game face.
“In the zone” game face.

Porges’ Polyvagal Theory

Stephen W. PorgesPolyvagal Theory states that mammals still carry remnants of past versions of the ANS. “Neuroception,” what I imagine to be a neural process not unlike a computer scanning for facial or fingerprint recognition, determines what in the environment is safe and what is dangerous. The reaction to this scan is hierarchical in nature. The newest system, evolutionarily speaking, will have first crack at the problem. This social engagement system (SES) involves the ventral vagal complex and initiates pro-social behavior to ameliorate the threat. Still feeling unsafe? The second system, the sympathetic nervous system, comes up to bat and decides to either swing for the fences (fight) or go for the walk (flight). The last system at our disposal is found in the unmyelinated vagus nerve and causes mammals to freeze like a deer in the headlights or play dead.

Pinch of Panksepp, Dash of Porges

The competitive model involving the SEEKING/RAGE emotional systems would be answered by the second-level response “fight or flight.” Evolutionarily, this model would be connected to competition over resources and steeped in our history as predators and prey. The participatory model involving SEEKNG/PLAY emotional systems would be answered by the first response-level response of the SES because play occurs in a safe context. It is here that we can see the influence of an individual athlete’s social and familial history. Past trauma upends a player’s affective balance, making it difficult to squash their fight or flight response. Activity like Panksepp’s “joyous play” has the ability to “right the ship” so to speak and recalibrate an individual’s affective balance. CrossFit may be one such example of this type of play. ‘Running for cause’ is another. To promote immersive play, culture should praise sportsmanship and other pro-social behavior while downplaying the “win-at-all-costs” perspective.

Take-away message

Immersive sport is the best way to experience sport as it involves SEEKING, PLAY, and RAGE emotional systems within a safe context that promotes “flow.” Evolutionarily speaking, the immersive model integrates Panksepp’s core emotional systems with Porges’ understanding of the neuroscience behind affective balance. It incorporates an examination of the specific familial and social contexts of individual athletes as well as the broader cultural neuropsychology of sport. This model states that it is possible to look twice at a situation. Seeing the trees does not prohibit us from viewing the forest as a whole.

Psych Table for this article.
Psych Table for this article.

7 thoughts on “GAME ON: Sport, Play, and Healthy Competition”

  1. Do you think these models, competitive and participatory, could be applied to other areas in a person’s life, such as work or school?

  2. It was really interesting to me that the specific areas of the brain activated for these systems has been found, and that they seem to be, considering the brain and its interworkings, fairly localized. It seems that the emotions associated with sport are very primal and were early on very crucial to survival and therefore more of the brain would be devoted to such activities. It’s also interesting that these drives aren’t passed down as commonly as would be imagined evolutionarily. For example, “seeking” was something that was crucial to food acquisition; play, for social relationships that were an early means of securing safety and acquiring resources. It seems that we would be more internally and neurologically motivated to be active and engage in these behaviors than we tend to be as a society.

    Another thing I was thinking about is how damage or abnormalities in these areas would manifest. If defects in these areas are related to things like oppositional defiance disorder, conduct disorder, ADHD, etc (these feelings are too intense), or how they would reflect the other way (not enough of these feelings).

  3. When I used to play football, nothing pleased me as much as smashing into would-be tacklers or on defense arriving to the ball carrier and arriving in an angry mood. This always felt very primal to me and was very fulfilling. Nothing I have done in my life since has given me that type of feeling and satisfaction. So….I guess I feel like Heywood does not understand men very well.

  4. Heywood’s article reminded me of another article I recently read by Greg Downey. In his article “Cultural variation in rugby skills: A preliminary neuroanthropological report,” Downey discusses some preliminary thoughts on how “talented” athletes should be recognized, trained, and subsequently viewed. For this sport research, Downey found it helpful to view culture in terms of skill-enskilment and neuroplasticity. I was previously unaware of enskilment and tended to think of things only in terms of enculturation. Enskilment recognizes that some things (especially sport skills) are learned and understood through practice and are not necessarily the product of abstract thought processes. Downey brings up Ingold’s (1998) point that what we are really talking about here involves learning, development, and phenotypic adaptation. Downey ends this particular section with a discussion of visual behavior. People’s patterning of looks changes as they become increasingly competent in performing visual tasks. This reminds me of Heywood’s discussion of “flow” and being “in the zone.” Attention get’s focused on specific features associated with the goal of the task at hand. In my experience kicking penalty shots in soccer, highly talented goalies have been enskiled to hone in on eye movement as well as body position to save a penalty shot. My recognition of these talents has led me to glance at one corner of the goal while placing the ball in the opposite corner.

    Skills are also encultured. Here, Downey introduces the reader to the idea of cultural variation with a sport. There is also variation found between players. He calls for a rejection of what Lonner (1993) termed implicit “absolutism.” Not all experts are the same. This variation can be difficult to study in a lab because of there being a “maximal adaptation” to “task constraints” as taken from Anders Ericsson and colleges research. So, in the world of sport, there are many pathways to success. Even if the outcome is the same, the processes (developmentally and culturally) may be vastly different. Downey goes on to define degeneracy in terms of brain enculturation. Degeneracy exempts us from saying that an output is the product of specific neural activity. Human behavior described as “universal” might actually be anything but when speaking of the underlying neural structures.

    For this study, researchers are focusing on Rugby Sevens. Cultural differences in skill are measured for the fullback position (expected to showcase canalized skill) and for an open-field attacking role (expected to showcase one of four strategies). The mixed-methodology will include eye-tracking technology, participant observation, quantitative video observation, consultations with “indigenous” experts. This research will try to gain a neuroscientific understanding of the differences in playing style between Australian and Pacific rugby players. We should care because the research could have applications for coaching, talent identification, recruiting, and creating a sport that is culturally inclusive.

    The goal of this research is to look at individual “stars” and see what part of their background influences their high performance. Factors to be thoroughly reviewed are specialized coaching, informal practice, linked nonrugby activities, to name a few. I think Heywood’s understanding of the importance of social and familial contexts in allowing a participant to be “in the zone” should also be added to this study of stylistic play.

    1. I’ve thought about Heywood’s article a lot over the semester. While she utilized Porges’s work in her explanation of sport models, I used the Polyvagal theory and SES to illuminate stress more generally and applied this understanding to my study of culture shock as experienced by international students. The applicability of sport studies is huge. It could even be argued that sports are as universal as any other cultural institution like marriage or religion. What I am more interested in at this time is the intersection between sport and war. Heywood touches on the dangers of competitive gaming. Personally, I think these negatives need to be viewed, in some cases, the direct result of how particular sports are structured. Contact sports that valorize particular types of violence like football hits or hockey fights also come with a high occurrence of concussions. Neuroanthropology is unique situated to combine an anthropology of sport with the neurological outcomes of participation. Recently, a group of friends and I were talking about the future of football. On one hand, new rules and regulations might be imposed in the future to transform the game into the equivalent of two-hand-touch. Some of us hypothesized that these conditions would lead to a sharp decline in the viewing of and participation in football. On the other hand, as it becomes more clear how dangerous the game is, families who are better off will start prohibiting their children from playing the sport. The percentage of lower-income kids and adults playing the sport would increase because it affords them a path to what they perceive is a better life. Some argued that we are already seeing the effects of this second hypothesized outcome. Only time will tell.

  5. The “win-at-all-costs” perspective really stuck out to me this second time around. It makes me think about football culture and all of the head trauma that players go through. It’s no wonder so many ex-football legends have crippling mental illnesses with all of the concussions they go through without treatment. I wonder how the stress of being in those positions affects their mental health; they’re under huge amounts of pressure to win, and if they get hurt they basically can’t do their jobs anymore.

  6. One aspect about the concept of flow that I really admire is that athletes only obtain it when their skill level matches their challenge level. This means that people at all skill levels, not just experts, can get in the zone as long as they are adequately challenged. As your skill level increases, you have to face harder competition to reach the same level of flow. This means that you are continually pushing yourself to be better.

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