The Problem with Privilege

Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole argues that athletes from less developed nations might have higher levels of organic mental toughness.

One of the greatest aspects of sport is that with a little imagination it can be done for free.
One of the greatest aspects of sport is that with a little imagination it can be done for free.

Given the nature of the internet, I have no idea which country you’re from if you’re reading this article. But, given you can afford both a device to access the World Wide Web and some data then it’s reasonable to assume your not currently low the poverty line.

With this in mind I suspect you have probably never considered there to be any downside of being privelaged. Well from a Mental Toughness point of view, there is.

The problem with privilege, especially in younger athletes, is there is much less “organic” mental conditioning taking place compared with their counterparts from less developed nations. By organic – I mean the natural way in which a place will produce challenges that basically force those from that location to “find a way” to overcome them.

One of the best examples of this has to be fact that most of the top long distance runners over the past fifty years have come from Central or Northern Africa. The simple theory is that many of the young school kids from Kenya and Ethiopia (for example) had to travel long distances to and from school without any form of transport so started running there and back from a young age. Obviously there are tremendous physical benefits to this but what about the psychological gains due to doing something so hard from such a young age. All of a sudden, a 5000 meter Olympics final isn’t that big a deal – just another 5 km stretch to be completed as fast as possible.

At Condor Performance one of the ways in which we try to overcome this is by the introduction of what we call Mentally Harder Practice. If done correctly this mental method can be just as effective – potentially more so – at boosting mental aspects of performance than the organic equivalents that occur more frequently in certain harsh / harder environments. 

Mentally Harder Practice (MHP) is basically about doing anything during training that makes that practice session psychologically more challenging. I empathise mentally harder as it’s easy to incorrectly assume that physically harder = mentally harder. I recall once asking a high profile Rugby League coach what he did to make practice mental harder and he replied “to make the guys run up sand dunes in 35 degree heat”. I later asked his players about these sand dunes and more than half said they loved them. If you love it, it’s not mentally harder. In other words MHP is basically manipulating your daily training environment to be less comfortable and this is where individual differences really come into play. 

For example, one easy way to do this might be by playing with the thermostat so that in hot places, instead of cooling down the training facility either do nothing or heat it up. Or, for our Kiwi and Canadian readers in particular, when it’s freezing cold just let it be that way or cool it down even more!

There are three huge benefits to this type of mental training and I will use the above temperature example to explain. First, it varies training and we know the fastest way to demotivate an athlete is by having the same kind of training week after week. Second, if during an actual competition it was to become much hotter or colder than expected – this mental method will lessen the impact. Finally, it will require a greater level of concentration along the lines of you’ll need to work harder not to let the “oh boy it’s cold/hot” derail your processes. 

A double word of warning before you get too excited and ask your coach to start throwing rotten eggs at you during your next training session. First, make sure that none of your MHP ideas put you in physical danger and/or increase the risk of injury. Using the example above of practising in the cold on purpose it would be essential to properly warm up your body before such a training session. Second, make sure your ideas don’t put you in psychological danger either. By psychological danger, I mean creating an environment that is so hard it actually causes some kind of long term mental scarring to take place. The safest way to do this is by only adding small mental demands to training – a bit like increasing the overall weight of a dumbbell by a kilogram or two in certain physical training exercises to reduce the risk of tearing a muscle.

If the only reason why you’re currently not working 1-on-1 with a sports psychologist is due to the cost (it can be expensive – due to the number of years required to become certified) then can I suggest you complete the highly affordable online mental toughness training program – Metuf. For USD $20 you’ll get full access to many of the mental skills used by many of the world’s most successful athletes and coaches.

Controlled And Uncontrolled Aggression In Sport

Tim Webster, from Macquarie Sports Radio, talks to one of our Senior Sports Psychologists about the fine line between controlled and uncontrolled aggression in team sports.

Radio Interview:

Full Transcription:

Tim:                                            Well, we were on the air last weekend when this happened, and we watched it and could’t quite believe it. Andrew Gaff from the Eagles broke the jaw of young Fremantle star Andrew Brayshaw, which required broken-jaw surgery, and of course a lot of missing teeth. If you saw him on television last night, this young boy’s a mess.

Tim:                                            Now, Daniel Harford, a former Hawthorne and Carlton great, has said the treatment of Andrew Gaff has been shameful. Now he got an eight-week ban for it, so the question is, is the treatment of Andrew Gaff shameful, or is what he did shameful, and the psychology of all that? Now a guy that we go to quite often, and we love talking to him about all of this is sports psychologist with Condor Performance, Gareth Mole.

Tim:                                            G’day, Gareth.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Hey, Tim.

Tim:                                            It was a horrible incident, wasn’t it?

Gareth J. Mole:                   It was a horrible incident. I was actually watching the match, completely missed it when it happened live, but obviously I’ve, and now like many AFL fans, had the opportunity to watch the 4,000 slow-motion replays and obviously form an opinion on it.

Tim:                                            Now Andrew Gaff is very remorseful. He says it’s the worse 48 hours of his life, the couple of days after it, and ends up at the Tribunal and gets eight weeks. Now people are saying that’s not enough, and the social media being what it is, everyone’s going for nothing short of putting him in the stocks, putting him in jail, or banning him for life, so the psychology of that? Well, let’s talk about him first and then we’ll talk about Brayshaw. How harmful is that for Andrew Gaff?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yeah, it’s a good question, and it’s a good place to start, because obviously that’s what’s happening right now. We don’t have a time machine. We can’t go back and undo the incident, so that’s definitely the most important area to focus on. I mean, essentially, the broader question, Tim, is the impact that public opinion have when they’re coming down on you? From one perspective, there needs to be an acknowledgement that if having the public give their opinion about what you do is not something you’re comfortable with, then the majority of professions exist to keep you completely safe, you know, if you’re a librarian or a dentist, you’re going to get very, very, little public scrutiny. So there needs to be some sort of acknowledgement that as you progress up the sporting ladder, there is going to be an increase in the amount of attention that comes from people that you’ve never met, and of course social media has just put a huge magnifying glass on that.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Without knowing either of the Andrews, the way that I would try and answer that question would be, you would hope, that with the resources available to AFL clubs, which is very impressive in comparison to many sports, you would hope that there would be a qualified person working in the background, which essentially would mean that that criticism is not having a long lasting devastating impact. So that would be the hope, and at the end of the day, it is easy for us to say, but it is just people giving their opinions and that old schoolyard phrase of, sticks and stones, sort of, kind of, applies to this situation. The vast majority of the criticism is simply words and people giving their opinion.

Tim:                                            You know, once upon a time, and I’m not for one second condoning violence, I mean that would’ve happened in a game of football, whether it’s AFL, rugby league, rugby union, the penalty would be handed out and we’d move on, but it’s almost endless now. People who maybe don’t know anything about football, and just see it and describe it being the worst they’ve ever seen, and they want him banned for life et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So it goes on, and on, and on, with the social media. How harmful is that to Andrew Gaff?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yeah, I mean, I think one of the really important things for us to try and get our head around is, I noticed there was an article written by the father of somebody who, I believe, was killed by a one-punch hit, essentially saying it should be treated exactly the same as if you went up to someone in the street and clocked them around the face with your most powerful fist. I personally don’t believe that is appropriate. I mean, if we just use a very simply example, Tim, one of the hardest sports, rugby league, if I was to bump into you in the supermarket and give you my best rugby league tackle, which is not that impressive, but I grabbed you by the ankle, and you could potentially sue me, and you’d be successful, but yet, that happens 250 times every single time two rugby league teams play each other. So I am a strong advocate of the fact that within sporting contexts we cannot apply exactly the same mechanisms and rules that apply to people walking around the street, so the context is crucial here.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Those two, if the two Andrews had been in a pub catching up, and the exact same incident had happened, then we, I think, treat it completely differently, but it happened within a sporting battle, if we can use that word, and there’s probably countless numbers of similar kinds of incidents that take place every week, but we just don’t hear about them because of course, they don’t cause any injury, and therefore they just kind of get brushed under the carpet, but the context is critical, I think.

Tim:                                            Well, yeah. I think suggesting criminal charges for assault, which some did suggest, is just going way too far. Andrew Gaff himself, and look we just got to take him at face value, said he was actually not aiming for his face, but he collected his face in a horrible way. I think the thing that troubled a lot of people the most was that he just seemed to hit him and then run away. So that whole heat of battle thing on a football field, and we’ve discussed this before, haven’t we, when players know what the consequences are, and they still do things like what Andrew Gaff did, it did, I must say, I shake my head.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yeah. I suppose one of the questions is, is it realistic to expect players to be able to, players of any sport, to be able to do what most humans are unable to do? So what we saw there, if we’re talking a little bit of neuroscience here, is what’s commonly called the rage response, is how people describe it, and the research is pretty clear. When you do something which falls under that label of the rage response, you basically don’t really know you’re doing it, and the common sort of feedback of people who’ve been involved in these kinds of actions is within a second of doing the particular act, they know it was kind of wrong. The neuroscience behind the rage response is basically to do with fight and flight. Essentially we’ve evolved over tens of millions of years, so that if anything is of perceived threat to us, then we kind of react in a similar way to pulling your hand off a hot oven, it just sort of happens. Now some people will be better at that than others, for whatever reasons, genetics, and so on and so forth, but there are things that you can do to reduce the chances of it happening, the most obvious thing is to reduce player stress.

Gareth J. Mole:                   If someone is much more relaxed, if you are much, much more relaxed as a baseline, within a game, which is totally possible, it’s what we do all the time, therefore, it’s going to require something much, much bigger to trigger the rage response. If you’re quite stressed anyway, and there’s lots of things that can cause stress, like a close match, you know, a local Western Australian Derby is probably pretty good at increasing stress-

Tim:                                            Well, that’s what it was. Yeah, that’s right.

Gareth J. Mole:                   That’s right.

Tim:                                            Yeah.

Gareth J. Mole:                   His baseline stress is high, and then a few things are happening and basically, bam, rage response, and he does it without being able to stop it.

Tim:                                            Yeah, look, AFLs a game, and it’s traditional, they just do it, it doesn’t happen in rugby league or rugby union, or in the real game, and they come on the field and they push each other and shove each other and it’s all a bit of argy-bargy before the game even starts, and while the game is on, so is that part of it? So that escalates him, he push, shove, push, shove, and you know how you get yourself, if someone does that to you, you get really cranky, “Well, for god’s sake, leave me alone” and eventually you lash out. I mean, I suppose that’s what could’ve happened in this instance.

Gareth J. Mole:                   That’s definitely part of it, Tim. And the other sport, of course, is ice hockey-

Tim:                                            Yeah. Yeah.

Gareth J. Mole:                   … which is exactly the same. Those two sports are exactly the same where’s this quite bizarre acceptable level of push and shove, and you know, we’re obviously guessing here, but you’d have to expect what you just said to be absolutely valid. If you’re a young man, pumped full of testosterone, extremely excited about the idea of playing in a WA Derby, or any match to be completely honest, and then you add on top of that just the little bit of additional fight or flight, or stress that comes with little push, little shove, little push, little shove, little push, little shove, suddenly the amount of incidents, or what needs to take place during the actual match to trigger the rage response is obviously going to be much, much less. So I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis, if that was outlawed entirely from AFL and ice hockey, so, “Sorry guys, you now need to be the same as all other sports-

Tim:                                            Yeah, just back off.

Gareth J. Mole:                   … you cannot touch, there’s a chance that what we saw would never have taken place.

Tim:                                            Okay, now I’m really concerned about Andrew Brayshaw. I saw him on television last night getting into a car, I mean the kid’s a mess. He’s only a kid. It’s his first year of AFL football for Fremantle and he’s an emerging star. He’s got a wired-up jaw, then teeth displaced, and blood all over his face still, after being in hospital. Now, the psychological effect on him, when he eventually comes back to playing the game, I mean you’d only be human if there wasn’t something going on in your mind, surely?

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yes, and I mean this is a very well-researched area. Basically, it’s what happens when an athlete is both injured, and there’s a whole can of worms there, so suddenly they go from be able to do full training to literally being able to do nothing, and therefore, how do they use that time and not let the fact that the stuff they’re doing, which is probably re-hab, a lot of that sort of work, isn’t demotivating? So that’s one area. And then, of course, the other area, which is what you’re probably eluding to there is the fear factor of when he next-

Tim:                                            Yes.

Gareth J. Mole:                   … gets back into the … You know, these are very well-researched areas, because of course, people do get injured all the time. The advice that I would give to anybody who’s listening who’s in a similar situation, and you know, it may sound simple to put that, the injury that you’re talking about in terms of Andrew Brayshaw’s, in a similar category to any other injury, but it is part of the same challenges, is basically, focus on what you can control in the present moment. So there will be little things that he can do, or any player can do to improve the chances that they can get back as quickly as possible. Then there’s probably just a little bit of rationalisation that could be useful, Tim, in that if you really are concerned, get the statistics out. It’s the same mechanism of people who are petrified of flying, you know, the statistics of you dying on an airplane are about, less than one percent of the chances of you being injured in a car, so there’s probably a benefit to him sitting down and going, “Well, actually, to be honest, I’ve played how many hours of AFL since I was a kid, and nothing like this has ever happened? How many matches of AFL are played every year, and this happens once every three years? The chances of it happening to me again, are probably one in a million.”

Tim:                                            Yeah, and I could’t agree with you more about the jostling in AFL, and you’re right, it happens in ice hockey too. I mean, that would just annoy most people, you know, you got a chest bump, and a push and a shove, and if you’re having a bad day, or you’re just, you know, your fuse blows, I mean that sort of thing’s going to happen, isn’t it? I think you’re right. I think probably it would be a big thing for the AFL to do, but just ban that all together, say, Well, there’s no more of that, let’s cut that out, and there’s obviously going to be a less chance of your thumping somebody.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Yeah, I mean, if we’re talking about the evolution of the way that the mind works, which I think is incredibly important, it’s all very well to say, “Well, yeah, but it’s in the context of an AFL match, and so it doesn’t really matter.” The fact is, is that if we go back a thousand years, and you get two guys who are basically pushing and shoving each other, the cortisol, which is the stress hormone, is going to go up.

Tim:                                            Yeah. Yeah.

Gareth J. Mole:                   We simply don’t have the capacity to go, “Oh, well, you know what? It’s all part of the game. This is all just fun and games.” So the fact that I’m getting needled in the back before the match has even started, you know, it’s just unrealistic-

Tim:                                            Yeah, I agree.

Gareth J. Mole:                   So there’s no doubt the simplest way would be to … And of course, one interesting thing is, I don’t know how many team sports exist out there across all different countries, 30, 40, 50 common, popular team sports, if only two are doing something and the other 40 aren’t, then probably it’s a bad idea.

Tim:                                            Yeah, I agree.

Tim:                                            Always great to talk to you, mate.

Tim:                                            You can find Gareth’s stuff at Condor Performance, he’s one of the psychologists there.

Tim:                                            It’s great to talk to you always. Thanks mate.

Gareth J. Mole:                   Thanks, Tim.

Tim:                                            That’s Gareth Mole.

Further comments were provided by Gareth to the Sunday Times newspaper in March 2019 ahead of the preseason clash between the West Coast Eagles and The Fremantle Dockers. The PDF of the article can be viewed below.