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Q&A: The Psychological Reactions Behind Sports And Violence

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, left, gets ready to hit Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, second from left, with a helmet during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, in Cleveland. The Browns won 21-7. [Ron Schwane / AP]
Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, left, gets ready to hit Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, second from left, with a helmet during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, in Cleveland.

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett is suspended indefinitely for his role in a fight at the end of last night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The fight started when Garrett tackled Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. As the fight progressed, Garrett ripped Rudolph's helmet off and hit him in the head with it. 

ideastream health reporter Lisa Ryan talked with MetroHealth Clinical Psychologist Dr. Emily White about the challenges professional athletes face in controlling emotions when they're in the heat of the action. 

Is there something that goes on in the body during a competition that would cause a person to lose their temper in a way they perhaps wouldn't off the field?

There is so much going on within the body, but then also outside the body during competition. So we have to think about the external factors of being in a loud stadium full of thousands of cheering fans. You have the other players on the field that you're interacting with. You have coaches yelling at you and telling you what to do. And so there's kind of this whole sports contagion or emotion contagion that you can catch onto the emotions of others around you. So if you're surrounded by a lot of very intense, you know, emotionally activated people, it's easy for you as a player to start to feel that way yourself. And when we experience strong emotions like that, our body starts to really activate. So our heart rate might speed up. Our blood is pumping faster to our muscles. Our breathing might quicken a little bit. And there's sort of a feedback loop here that as you feel certain emotions, your body reacts. And then as your body reacts, we attribute that reaction to the emotion. So it can really strengthen how the person is feeling and make them feel even more on edge or agitated and more likely to react in a strong way.

And when the fight between Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph happened, other players rushed in and there were more fights and even more confusion. So why do you think other players wanted to join in that fight?

Our emotions are very complex and it's very difficult to know what's going through someone's mind in that split-second reaction. They wanted to really sort of protect their group member and jump in. It also could be that certain individuals feel emotions very strongly and they have a harder time controlling them when they start to feel a certain way. And so they're more likely to jump in and act without thinking.

And occasionally, fans can become violent as well. So does this same emotional response happen in the stands?

I believe it certainly could. Fans really, again, identify with that in group of being part of the team. And the emotional contagion that I spoke of before is a well-documented phenomenon — that we catch the emotions of people around us. And in the stadium environment where it's loud, you're surrounded by others who feel strongly about sports, too. You can certainly catch on to strong emotions both on the field, but then also those surrounding you in the stands.

Are there any ways to help control a person's anger, whether it's on or off the field?

Sure. I think one approach to treating emotions or treating emotional reactions is to, in the first place, be aware of how you're feeling. So in the middle of competition, this can be extremely difficult to do because you're in the heat of the moment. You're distracted, you're thinking about needing to perform athletically, but even stopping to take a deep breath to focus on your breathing for a few seconds and really try to ground yourself in the moment. We know that these kind of mindfulness strategies can help bring you into the present and keep you more focused on what you need to do to be effective at that moment.

We sometimes think of emotions and competition being a hindrance or something that will negatively impact people's performance. But there's actually a lot of research showing that it's more about finding the sweet spot of emotional reaction. So if you have too little emotion, if you're feeling kind of neutral or blah, that can actually lead to underperformance. So a little bit of emotional activation is good. However, where it becomes a problem is where people start to feel too consumed by their emotions. At the ends of the spectrum is where people tend not to perform as well. But somewhere in the middle seems to be the sweet spot for optimal performance.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158