This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon

Here are some highlights from this book:

* We like our signal-callers handsome. The quarterback may not have existed before Camp and his contemporaries descended upon the Massasoit House 135 years ago, but his brainchild has since evolved into the most glamorous position in all of sports (North American jurisdiction, at least).

The storied lineage spans from Broadway Joe Namath to Joe Montana and Dan Marino to Brett Favre to Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson. The polarizing, short-lived cult of Tim Tebow? Even his biggest detractors must concede: not the worst-looking guy. As we write this, the attractiveness of Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury is an Internet meme. (Hot Kliff Kingsbury Flirts with Moms of Recruits.) Naturally, Hot Kliff Kingsbury is a former college quarterback.*1

Pop culture has cemented this image. Name a leading man (Burt Reynolds, Kurt Russell, Warren Beatty, Keanu Reeves, Dennis Quaid, Jamie Foxx) and odds are good he has played the role of a quarterback. There are examples of the reverse, too. Before he was Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS, Mark Harmon was a quarterback at UCLA.

In fact, the allure of being an alluring QB can be enough to motivate a position change. Brad Grayson—father of Garrett Grayson, a Saints rookie as we write this—described his son’s decision several years ago to switch from running back to quarterback as a calculated one. “Gotta consider the ladies,” explained the elder Grayson with a smile.

The inevitable question, then: Why are quarterbacks so damned good-looking?

As he tends to do, radio host Colin Cowherd offers a theory that is based less on specific research studies and more on the effort to play provocateur. Cowherd reckons that quarterbacks are good-looking because of natural selection. As he once put it, “When boys growing up are picking teams and positions, they always pick a good-looking kid to be quarterback. They never pick an ugly kid. That…sets up the pattern.” In other words, the best-looking kids in the schoolyard are selected for the glamour position. They are put on a “quarterback track,” and by the time they begin playing organized football, they are experienced at the position. It’s akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

* researchers found that the more symmetrical a QB’s face was, the more money he made.

* VAN GILDER, the economist, nailed it when she said, “Socially, we’ve been trained to think that the quarterback is the most beautiful person on the team.”

* Quarterbacks are likely groomed for the job. Except this isn’t based on the perceptions of their attractiveness; it’s based on perceptions of leadership. When we, collectively, talk about how good-looking QBs are, we are probably, thanks in no small part to the halo effect, conflating looks with leadership.

* 1. We always think we’re the center of attention. We’re convinced that every slight variation in our appearance or performance is immediately noted by everyone around us. Researchers have dubbed this the spotlight effect, and it’s the reason many of us spent junior high convinced that that cafeteria table full of kids breaking up in laughter was doing so at our expense—that they must have noticed that giant pimple on our nose, our latest bad hair day, or the ridiculous new pants Mom made us wear. Even when, in fact, no one was actually paying us much attention at all.

In one clever study, researchers at Cornell put participating students in the unenviable position of reexperiencing those adolescent insecurities. Each subject was forced to march into a group of peers wearing something embarrassing: in this case a T-shirt with a gaudy Barry Manilow photo (as if there were any other kind) splashed across the front. The student then had to sit and complete a written survey while surrounded by conventionally clad peers. Afterward, the Manilow wearers were asked how many people around them had noticed what they had on. They wildly overestimated how noticeable and memorable the embarrassing shirt had been.

As the researchers concluded, “People tend to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does.” Welterweight boxers and tyrannical rulers aren’t the only ones who think the world revolves around them. Most of us do—it’s a consequence of spending much of our day engaged in internal conversation but lacking insight into the monologues everyone else is producing.

2. We think we’re more powerful than we are. We regularly succumb to the illusion of control, overconfident in the role we play in outcomes around us.

* We can’t help but see ourselves as the center of attention and as masters of our own fates, despite rational evidence to the contrary. These and a variety of other egocentric biases help us stay optimistic even when the going gets tough. In fact, some psychologists argue that illusions like these are essential components of mental health—that looking at life without such ego-friendly lenses is a recipe for despondency.

In much the same way, the athlete’s belief that “no one respects me” plays an adaptive psychological role. That’s why it persists: A false narrative must serve a function in order to perpetuate itself.

* I’m not as good as people say I am; our opponents are much better than you think they are—is another false narrative that serves a clear psychological function. Several functions, in fact. For one, it’s a close cousin of “nobody respects us” as a motivational ploy that competitors use to keep themselves sharp and that coaches employ to maintain their players’ focus. As Nadal explained, it’s a way to make sure you don’t drop your guard.

* THE false narrative told well is an invaluable tool for motivation and ego protection. It can help us ward off complacency as well as pressure. It can preempt disappointment and magnify success. The trick is figuring out for each scenario the right combination of psychological ingredients to produce the desired outcome.

* The better we get at a task, the worse we often become at articulating what we’re doing. So it is that the Great Ones are often beset by what is sometimes called the curse of expertise: They struggle to communicate what has always come naturally to them.

* human nature is surprisingly state-dependent. That is, depending on the circumstances, we think and act like very different people. (Or, to invoke the title of Sam’s previous book, Situations Matter.) For example, we operate in a “hot state” of mind (and body) when we’re angry, hungry, in pain, or generally aroused. Other times we’re in a “cold state.” Our thought processes and behavioral tendencies vary dramatically from one state to the other, often in ways that we don’t fully appreciate. Cold-state self has a hard time predicting how hot-state self will react, and vice versa.

* “Even the most brilliant and rational person, in the heat of passion, seems to be absolutely and completely divorced from the person he thought he was. Moreover, it is not just that people make wrong predictions about themselves—their predictions are wrong by a wide margin.”

* Asked what he would have been if not a soccer player, the British striker Peter Crouch paused for a moment. Then he replied memorably, “A virgin.” Jason Giambi, the baseball slugger, had a slightly less decorous take on the considerable overlap between sex and sports. While playing for the Oakland A’s, he wore a T-shirt underneath his No. 16 jersey that bore this bit of (horn)doggerel: Party Like a Rock Star. Hammer Like a Porn Star. Rake Like an All-Star. When Wilt Chamberlain famously boasted of having slept with 20,000 women, it triggered a round of guffaws—as well as a memorable Saturday Night Live sketch starring M.C. Hammer. (“I remember Cheryl. Number 13,906. But in my heart she was number 2,078. Cheryl was so full of life, love, and laughter.”)

* In 2012 [Timothy Olson] wrote a post for the site titled “My Path to Contentment: From Addict to Awakened Ultrarunner.” In it he told his deeply confessional story with bracing candor: “Running was my lifesaver. I first started back running to detox, clean out my body and pass that fun, pee-in-a-cup drug test. I ran to forget, I ran for peace, I ran because it was all I could do and it healed me. Running helped me look inside myself, forgive myself, trust myself, and learn from my past. Running let out all sorts of emotions; I found myself crying, laughing, screaming and puking through this road of recovery.”

* Spend only a few moments online going down the endurance-sports rabbit hole, and it’s hard not to be struck by the high incidence of recovering addicts. Blake Anderson of Chico, California, is a star on the Ironman triathlon circuit. He also speaks about his past, starting with experimentation with marijuana that led to experimentation with cocaine, which led to full-blown drug and alcohol addiction. He didn’t connect with a formal recovery program, but as he told his local newspaper, he found a different path to sobriety. He says, “My meetings are every time I lace up my running shoes; every time I clip my cleats into the pedals on my bike; every time I crush those laps in the pool.”

Rich Roll was a former college swimmer and a successful litigator at a prominent law firm in southern California—until he developed what he calls “a mean case of alcoholism.” His days began with a vodka tonic in the shower. “What started out as all fun and games,” he writes on his website, “morphed into scenes out of Leaving Las Vegas.” Why does he have a website? Because, after spending 100 days in an Oregon treatment center, he became one of the top endurance-sports athletes. A veteran of the Ultraman (a three-day event on the Big Island of Hawaii consisting of a 10K ocean swim, a bike ride of more than 260 miles, and a double-marathon run), he was named one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World” by Men’s Fitness…

It doesn’t take a licensed psychologist to suggest that many ultrarunners seem to be swapping one addiction for another (albeit far healthier) one. Here’s Timothy Olson’s take: “I’ll use this as an addiction instead of that wasn’t my [conscious] thought process, but subconsciously it felt good. I’d go for a big run and I’d come back feeling pretty damn high. It was natural. It was a good thing.”

* Confronted with tragic or painful events, we humans often cope well. Really well. Within days, even hours, of trauma, we can regain our equilibrium and baseline function. Grief is not always the paralyzing force it’s built up to be.
When we encounter an emotionally turbulent event such as a death in the family, a primitive set of brain and hormonal responses is activated. We get a surge of cortisol, the stress hormone. This can be disorienting; after a rush of cortisol, people describe a feeling akin to an altered state of consciousness, as the brain/body system kicks into emergency mode. This feeling subsides after a few hours, however, allowing us to continue with life as we know it fairly quickly. “There’s that emergency response state, and then it’s kind of done and we can think clearly again,” explains George Bonanno, a Columbia University professor who specializes in trauma and grief. “Durability is the norm, not the exception.”
How so? Bonanno has proposed and found evidence of four distinct trajectories of response in the wake of a potentially traumatic event (chart, below). There’s chronic distress, an immediately high level of dysfunction that never really goes away. There’s delayed reaction, whereby an individual initially experiences only a moderate level of grief and disruption but then gets worse rather than better as time goes by. There’s recovery, the gradual process of working through acute distress, in the “let nature run its course” manner. And, finally, there’s resilience, the absence of major symptoms or dysfunction. Those first three types of response—chronic, delayed, and recovery? None is as common as resilience. In fact, resilience is more common than the other three types combined. In the typical bereavement case, research indicates that no more than 15 percent of people experience chronically elevated states of grief that disrupt regular functioning.

* the vast majority of New York City residents showed no symptoms of trauma in the months after the [9-11] attacks. Even among those who lost loved ones, rates of resilience were high.

* Grief doesn’t move in a straight line or arc. It comes and goes. It oscillates. During bereavement it’s actually quite normal for people to smile or laugh as they talk about their loved one. In fact, this is one of the main reasons for the high rate of resilience: Grief usually isn’t static or relentless. If it were, it wouldn’t be as tolerable. Here’s Bonanno again: “Fluctuation is adaptive because it allows us to engage in contrasting activities. We can’t inhale and exhale at the same time, so we breathe in cycles.” So it is with grief. “We can’t reflect on the reality of a loss and engage with the world around us at the same time,” he writes. “So we do that in cycles too.”

* In one study, college students in dating relationships were asked to imagine how they would feel two months after the relationship ended. Their predictions overshot the mark dramatically: They thought they’d be far more miserable than they really would be. Which we know because the researchers compared their emotional forecasts to the reported happiness levels of other college students whose relationships had ended months earlier.

* The same goes for positive life events. That old yarn about people who win the lottery being no happier than the rest of us? It’s usually tied to a 1978 study of 22 lottery winners, who reported happiness levels that were no greater than those of a control group (and who rated a variety of ordinary daily activities as less pleasurable than did the comparison group). Recent research tells a more complicated story: Lottery winners are at least a bit happier than the rest of us, and people with higher incomes typically report better mood than those who make less, but the differences are much smaller than you’d expect. Even with a positive event such as winning money, we return to emotional equilibrium much sooner than conventional wisdom suggests. “Winning the lottery is a happy event,” writes Daniel Kahneman, author and Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist. “But the elation does not last.”
That even our intuitions about what makes us happy are flawed is a sobering realization. After all, so many of the choices we make—what neighborhood to live in, whom to marry—are largely based on such assumptions. Similarly disconcerting is the idea that even the greatest of life’s spikes in happiness can be short-lived.

* The brain works backward from the finish line, calculating—and recalibrating on the fly—how hard to let the body work, depending on how much more work remains to be done.

* If you don’t know the finish line, you can’t allocate the physical resources to do the job effectively.

* “You hear about these teams of programmers…who end up pulling, say, five all-nighters in a row in order to get a new piece of software to ship on time. It’s knowing that the software has to ship on a certain date that allows them to draw on these previously unimagined reservoirs of effort, capacity, and talent.” On a regular basis, seemingly ordinary people pull off feats like these—it’s just that Al Michaels isn’t there to do the play-by-play.

* goals are powerful in small doses but have been dangerously overprescribed. In a paper titled “Goals Gone Wild” (that’s right, even academics have a sense of humor), researchers identify a litany of problematic side effects when organizations become too goal-happy. For example, goals narrow your focus and can promote risk-taking and even unethical behavior. The auto executive concerned about hitting a release date might overlook safety-test results in the rush to get a car to market.

* Our general sense of morality is, in a word, flexible. One of the clearest examples is that we cut ourselves a great deal of slack when evaluating our own morally ambiguous behavior.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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