Under Further Review: This Is Your Brain On Sports

An old friend from my Chapel Hill days exults in every win posted by our beloved UNC Tar Heels during March Madness, but her joy may be even more ferocious when the despised Duke Blue Devils are ousted early in the tournament. Is my friend, who now resides in Durham, simply unhinged by her proximity to the New England Patriots of college hoops? It turns out there’s a physiological explanation for her rapturous schadenfreude, according to “This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn From the T-Shirt Cannon.”

The book, by Sports Illustrated executive editor Jon Wertheim and Tufts University behavioral scientist Sam Sommers, is an engrossing “Freakonomics”-style dive into the underpinnings of why athletes—and fans—feel and behave the ways they do with respect to the sports they love. Although much of the sports-related behavior the book examines seems to defy ordinary rules of conduct and social convention, “so often the appearance of lunacy in sports isn’t lunacy at all,” the authors observe. “As outlandish as sports conduct might seem, it is rooted in basic human psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive tendency.” By the time you finish this book, you’ll see where they’re coming from.

The topics on which the book touches run the gamut. Among other things, Wertheim and Sommers scrutinize the attributes we subconsciously ascribe to pro quarterbacks, explore whether pre-game sex affects an athlete’s performance, and ponder why underdogs exert such a strong pull on our emotions. They also probe why we’ll risk our lives lunging from the second deck in a bid to catch a flimsy, ad-bedecked t-shirt, which we wouldn’t pay $1 for at the team store, if it’s been fired from a cannon into the yowling crowd.

The authors aren’t just spitballing. They back up their various theories with a wealth of research, including psychological experiments, studies crunching decades’ worth of sports performance data, and neurological imaging.

As for my friend’s excessive loathing of the Dark Lord K and his minions, neurological researchers have found that while a defeat suffered by a favorite team activates the region of the fan’s cerebrum devoted to emotional responses to pain (the anterior cingulate cortex), the “pleasure center” of the brain (the ventral striatum) reacts as strongly to a detested archrival’s misfortunes as to the successes of one’s own team. So in neurological terms, “Heels win!” is virtually equivalent to “Dook loses—to a 15 seed!”

A particularly interesting chapter, titled “Why We Channel Our Inner Floyd Mayweather and Secretly Crave Disrespect,” explores why many athletes at the pinnacle of sport nevertheless insist that they receive no respect and are the victims of endless ridicule from the media and opponents. “Name a star athlete, no matter how revered or prodigiously compensated, and there is a good chance he or she feels like a human repository for disrespect,” Wertheim and Sommers say. But it’s not only star athletes who use such delusional “false narratives” to gin up motivation and shield their egos, they note, saying, “That Floyd Mayweather views Rodney Dangerfield as a kindred spirit is consistent with a grand human tradition.”

And there’s a flip side to that delusion: Athletes and coaches who invariably downplay their chances of winning despite their status as favorites, to keep themselves motivated and ease the pressure they feel. The authors note it was only a “slight exaggeration” when The Onion once ran the headline “All 32 NFL Teams Announce They Are Underdogs Headed into Season.” As the inclusion of this nugget suggests, the book is anything but dry.

A chapter on “The Curse of the Expert” delves into the reasons the most iconic athletes often turn out to be mediocre coaches and general managers when their own playing days are over. Turning the threadbare cliché “those who can’t do, teach” on its head, Wertheim and Sommers posit a corollary: “Those who can do often can’t teach.” Why? Because “being an expert at doing something doesn’t always translate into being an expert at explaining how to do it.” The authors proffer a litany of all-time greats who turned out to be utterly worthless as teachers of lesser mortals, pointing to Michael Jordan’s abysmal record as a player-mentor and front-office guy and to Ted Williams’ lousy .428 winning percentage in four seasons as an MLB manager.

Rolling out a battery of supporting studies, Wertheim and Sommers say it appears that the tendencies that make great players great—such as an instinctual ability to anticipate an opponent’s next move, or a subconscious ability to craft shortcuts to accomplish goals—actually undermine their capacity to help less brilliant players improve. “If you can’t see what’s going on from the viewpoint of those who are less expert than you, you can’t instruct effectively,” they note. After carefully examining the playing careers of successful MLB managers, the authors suggest that “a baseball team in need of a manager should look to [Joe] Girardis [career slash line .267/.315/.350] rather than Jeters.”

On a less serious topic, the book looks at the “old coaches’ tale” that having sex before games undermines athletes’ performance and finds no evidence to support that canard. Theorizing that rules against having sex the night before a game are aimed less at the act itself than at the tomcatting it necessitates, the authors cite Yankees manager Casey Stengel: “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. … It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”

Sprinkling anecdotes like this throughout the book and employing a breezy style, Wertheim and Sommers take the reader on highly enjoyable and illuminating trip through these and a host of additional topics: Why do hockey goons win more fights in their home arena? Why are so many ultra-endurance athletes recovering substance abusers? Why do so many pro athletes jump at the chance to appear at your kid’s bar mitzvah, for a relatively paltry sum? And why are fans so willing to bestow forgiveness for the foibles (read: PED use) of their favorite players while at the time so rabidly denouncing those of certain opponents.

In short, “Your Brain on Sports” offers a refreshing and probing look into the complicated and often  illogical relationship that fans and athletes have with sports. Moreover, for any sports junkie, it’s just a damn fun read.


Mike Moore is an editor for Crooked Scoreboard. You should follow him on Twitter.