A New Kind of Participation Trophy

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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.

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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.

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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.

Evolutionary Playbook

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.

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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.

Play-by-Play Recap

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?

Discussion Questions
  1. How does this topic relate to our previous discussions of embodiment?
  2. How do you think different parenting styles might affect these core emotional systems?
  3. Can you think of other benefits or drawbacks of competitive sports that were not mentioned in the article?
  4. Can you think of any real life examples of immersive sports models other than those mentioned in the article?

13 thoughts on “A New Kind of Participation Trophy”

  1. Your questions are really thought provoking! To answer your first question, I am starting to see how all of the topics in this class relate to each other and how almost all of them could be examples of embodiment. I think that almost every system that is exposed to culture can be embodied. Whether it’s our equilibrium system or our emotions, each of these has both a neurological component and a culturally patterned component. I believe that embodiment is the enactment of cultural influence on neurological systems. To answer your second question, I think that parenting styles are an additional cultural influence that is specific to each individual’s family. For example, in American culture, it is seen as a weakness to cry. Therefore, an individual may avoid crying to be culturally consonant with what is viewed as strong or positive. However, let’s say that within an individual’s family, all ranges of emotional expression are encouraged. The individual may still cry, for example, which is consonant with his or her family values. Therefore, I think that the product of cultural influence and parental influence result in individualized emotional expression.

  2. One of the things that came to mind when reading this article is how would the general public react to it. With the seemingly constant talk of “participation trophies” and the dismissal of CTE in football players, would anyone really make an effort to incorporate these findings with emotion? It seems there is a mentality in the sports world that everyone should toughen up and just play the game without over analyzing it. I think there is a chance people would interpret this article as anti-competition and not wanting to “hurt anyone’s feelings.” That is why I wonder what kind of impact this would have on sports and how it would be received. The article addresses that the immersive model they propose will include aspects of the competitive model since it does have positive effects. I just wonder if people will be willing to accept it. The mention of embodiment is interesting as well. It makes sense that sports have an impact on embodiment. It is interesting to think about how they are embodied both by the athletes and the fans.

    1. When we talked in class about “participation trophies,” I thought of both the positive and negatives that could result from this practice. I think that on one hand, competition is good and healthy. For example, you need a certain amount of stress in order to find motivation to study for an exam and perform well. However, on the other hand, too much stress or anxiety makes it more difficult to study for an exam and perform well. Similarly, having too much anxiety about a competition could be debilitating and cause the desire to win to be the only reason why the sport is played. On the other hand, I think that giving participation trophies may be contributing to why millennials have higher rates of depression. I think that continuously telling children they’re doing awesome, whether or not that is actually true, sets them up for failure when they are rejected or fail to win in the real world. Priming everyone to think that they are special and able to “win” every time by giving them participation trophies leads them to believe they will always succeed which is not always the case. Furthermore, failure is an important part of growth and learning.

    2. While this article is interesting I still believe that it would never be incorporated into popular sports. I am still not entirely sure of the concept that there is an optimum zone that one can be in during sports. It seems like such a precarious balancing act that it would be hard to convey and do in general sports. I suppose maybe if I saw the concept in action and applied to a real life example it would be easier to see its implications. I have also thought more about this article’s implications of different systems and whether that is language we should be wanting to embrace.

  3. The models of sports was an interesting concept that I hadn’t heard about much before reading this. I personally love competitive sports and I can’t see myself not enjoying competitive sports. While reading this I thought the idea that competition was a result of fear and threats was super interesting. It makes sense and I could see how people today are wanting to move away from this model. I’ve noticed that the movement for more inclusionary sports and games incline in popularity recently. I know that the idea of participation trophies in sports is somewhat controversial now, but over the next couple of generations I could see the idea become more accepted and eventually become a cultural norm.

  4. I think Heywood’s diagram of fight of flight is so intensely interesting, because we usually think of those things in a binary. The inclusion of “freeze” is so crucial- what happens when we are so overwhelmed we cannot make the choice either way. I know some people don’t like the idea of participatory awards or even an inclusive sports system, focusing on prowess and attributing toughness to this viewpoint. However, I think inclusion is pretty beneficial in general, especially during developmental stages. It may help lessen the range of the “freeze” zone we see at the top of Heywood’s model. I also think while it’s interesting to see parenting attributed to athletic neuroception, I’d like to see it expanded upon further environmentally.

  5. In this article I wondered about this concept of the seven emotional systems. As we discussed in class before with embodiment, emotions are super complex and have a lot of various meanings based on cultural context. I supposed it would take looking back at Panksepp’s work, but is this supposed to be a cross-cultural, “universal” conception of emotion? Does it relate to the different neurological networks that are partially activated that we learned about in the week on embodiment?

    1. The author mentions “play” as one of the seven emotional systems. Yet it seems like a lot of what is being discussed could be framed in terms of play theory. I wonder how these could be reconciled. It also brings in a bigger question that we skirted in class about the role of theory in neuroanthropological research. We’ve seen a lot of different theoretical perspectives used, and even discussed how different theories might have been more appropriate in different situations. A broader discussion regarding theory, and method as it relates, in neuroanthropology would have been helpful.

  6. I liked that this article also talked about embodiment. It’s a concept I’m still pretty unsure of, but now that I’ve seen it used in another context I feel like I understand it better. I think this whole article greatly benefits my research because I also focus on neuropsychology of exercise, and understanding the cultural aspect of this research will be a great thing to reference moving forward.

    1. I wish we could have had a little more in-depth discussion about this in class. I agree that young children in sports is extremely beneficial for them moving forward, but maybe if we took time to teach children while they’re young, the world wouldn’t be such power hungry and ruthless place as they grow up. However I also see that failure is an important part of learning, fall down three times, get up four, right? But instilling these “rage systems” and teaching the importance of winning over other benefits that sports have is probably not the best way to engage children in these activities.

  7. We saw last week how parenting can maybe influence how a child will adapt to stressors later in life. Stress is definitely a large component of competitive sports. So I think the parenting models we observed which contributed to high vagal tones and greater RSA would be more ideal.

    1. There is a lot of affect study that goes on at the University of Alabama, specifically the Social Cognitive Emotive Neuroscience Lab. Dr. Gable did a study, The influence of affective states on cognitive broadening/narrowing: Considering the importance of motivational intensity, that investigated the motivational intensity emotion and how that affected cognitive scope. This can maybe be connected to what was talked about in this article with sports, where competitive sports are thought to activate the “rage system.” This is an emotion that is high in motivational intensity and therefore you might see more competitive behavior.

  8. After the discussion of this article, I still think that the concept of competition is important in preparing individuals for how the real world is. Learning how to lose and how to come back from failure is an important skill that one needs to possess and its a skill I’d worry about losing with the increase in participatory trophies. However, I do agree that a greater emphasis on the fun in the sport rather than the winning would increase the number of people and children who actually play sports. I thought the comparison of sports to the fight or flight response in the body was an interesting one to make. I can understand that the amount of stress that an individual goes through during a sport can be high and that we don’t necessarily need that stress in this modern day and age, however I think that this is a controlled form of stress that is beneficial to a balanced life.

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