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Athletes tend to go primal when they’re on the field, researchers from the University of Birmingham and Sultan Qaboos University of Qaboos found in a new study. In the heat of the moment – if they’re focusing solely on the outcome of a game to be rewarded or to avoid “punishment,” they forget about right and wrong and engage in antisocial behavior as they chase the thrill of victory. (Does this explain boxer Mike Tyson biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear, once and for all?)
While off the field, top athletes may be models of hard work and discipline, on the Astroturf, they turn into animals, says a comprehensive new study analyzed 27 previous studies conducted on “prosocial” and “antisocial” behavior in sports and with athletes. That’s because they see a game, match, or competition as a punishment-reward scenario, where they either get to display their skills and win, or suffer the consequences, perhaps in a tirade from an angry coach. When the stakes are dizzyingly high, they lose track of right and wrong.
Think of the White Sox players conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Pete Rose gambling on baseball, including the games he played. Runner Marion Jones and her steroids scandal.
There are other examples of athletes leaving their morals behind: Soccer’s Zinedine Zidane, of France, head-butted in anger his opponent, Italy’s Marco Materazzi, after an on-field argument at the 2006 World Cup, instantly tarnishing his golden reputation.
“Certain conditions in sport may lead athletes who are relatively upstanding individuals in everyday life to suspend their sense of right and wrong when they step into a competitive sporting arena,” study author Dr. Maria Kavussanu, Reader in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham said in a release.
Coaches as culprit
It’s often the coach lurking in the corner who is partially to blame.
“In the pursuit of victory, coaches may ask players to cheat or injure their opponents, and players may see their teammates doing this,” said Kavussanu. “It may be easier to morally disengage in sport because responsibility for one’s inappropriate actions can be displaced onto others.”
It was a coach behind the scenes with American speedskater Simon Cho, who admitted he was wrong when he gave in to pressure from his coach in 2011 and tampered with another skater’s blades at the World Short Track Team Championships in Poland last year.
The study points to coaches as a major cause of immoral behavior, through the use of controlling language, a rewards-and-incentives program for good performance, and artful manipulation of athletes’ emotions.
Morality is bracketed
Temporarily adjusting your morality – say, whether you’re in the game or engaging in real life – is called “bracketed morality.”
Teammates can make a difference. Football and basketball players who felt their teammates had acted prosocially (positively) towards them during a game had a good experience playing: they reported more enjoyment, put forth more effort, felt they played better and felt more committed.
However, when a player’s teammates act anti-socially towards them – such as verbal abuse – it can be the source of stress and burnout.
The study is published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.