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

How can a glimpse of the finish line be such a powerful motivator that it pushes runners to nearly catastrophic efforts? Why do recovering addicts so often find success in ultra events? Why do the best athletes often make the poorest coaches? These are just a few of the topics that sportswriter L. Jon Wertheim and psychologist Sam Sommers explore in their new book, This is Your Brain on Sports. You’ll also find out why professional quarterbacks are the most attractive players in the game, what specific type of praise leads to continued improvement, and why we instinctively find ourselves rooting for the underdog.

If you’re a sports fan, or you enjoyed reading Freakonomics or Outliers, you’ll really enjoy this book. The writers weave stories about sports, behavioral economics, and neuroscience in such a witty and entertaining fashion that I read this book from cover to cover in a single weekend. It’s the kind of book that you can’t keep to yourself. Several times, I stopped passing family members and called them into the room to read passages aloud for their benefit. Yes, I’m that guy.

sports fans

As a father of two children who play sports, I was particularly interested in what the authors had to say about participation trophies in youth sports. Trophy companies are selling more awards than ever before, and kids across America have trophies and medallions lining their walls to commemorate their attendance. This has led many to question the wisdom of an everybody-is-a-winner approach and its lasting impact on competitive sports.

Back in the 1980’s, players on a struggling Notre Dame hockey team asked their psychology professors for help. The professors suggested specific and targeted feedback that focused on the most crucial area in need of improvement.  In this case, the team needed to increase their ‘hits’ per game to disrupt the other team’s offense. Soon, the Fighting Irish locker room had charts representing the number of checks per game. Players were given individual goals, and coaches dished out praise to those who earned it. As a result, the team’s hit rate increased by 82 percent and the graduating seniors had their first winning season since arriving on campus.

What does this tell us about participation trophies? And, more importantly, what does this tell us about good coaching?

Youth-soccer

Well, there is a place for participation trophies at the earliest levels of youth sports. Like half marathon medals for new runners, the bling may be the attraction for many budding athletes. But, as the league play advances and athletes mature the value in such awards becomes questionable. General praise just isn’t good enough. Feedback based on an individual player’s efforts is much better in terms of motivation. So coaches, toss out the mass-produced trophies and create meaningful awards. Somewhere there’s a young soccer player who deserves the “Best Hustle to Prevent a Goal by a Midfielder” award.

Every chapter of This is Your Brain on Sports will give you something to think about. You’ll find yourself shaking your head at the manic minds of athletes, fans, and coaches. And, you’ll have plenty of conversation starters for the next block party, barbecue, or sideline chat.

Thoughts?