Book Review by Sapphire Ng
This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon
Copyright February 2016
This Is Your Brain on Sports is a bonanza for sports and psychology aficionados. The brainchild of the perfectly complementary team of Wertheim and Sommers, the book is highly engaging and lucidly written. Laden from cover to cover with a myriad of interesting studies, research and examples, the book explores psychological realms with its own unique take - a refreshingly stimulating perspective through the lens of sports, and applying findings beyond sports into fields such as politics and business.
The book investigates the “hothead” archetype of athletes, the seeming phenomenon of home field advantage, the universal notion of the “curse of the expert”, the psychology of sports rooting, an athlete's adaptive psychological behavior of creating false narratives to preempt disappointment and magnify success, the appeal of “free” as manifested by the T-shirt-cannon, and today's sports manager's inevitable fate of sitting on a “perpetual hot seat”.
The book also examines the social programming that generates perceptions of the “attractive” quarterback, and the myth of endorsed abstinence before competition to prevent compromising performance. The authors also explored contrasts between the “hot state” of mind versus the “cold state” of mind, the “halo effect” tendency, and even drawing parallels between ballgames and Rorschach tests.
Of intriguing studies presented in the book, a particular stand-out was psychologist Tony Greenwald who wrote in his seminal paper “The Totalitarian Ego” suggesting that people's typical self-views correspond “disturbingly” to the way “Kim Jong-un runs North Korea”; People employ against themselves thought control and propaganda devices considered to be defining characteristics of a totalitarian political system.
Further studies conducted by psychologists are cited, on matters such as the discovery that the mere act of explaining how to perform an athletic feat can make one worse at performing it. Other interesting studies include that of “expert” and “non-expert” LEGO builders that revealed elite performers' detachment from their past experiences as novices in the same fields. In investigating home field advantage, Matthew Fuxjager's doctoral dissertation in zoology at the University of Wisconsin was adduced, leading to the deduction that athletes exhibit different brain chemistries when competing at home versus elsewhere. The book contains insights on the “Perceptions of Shapes” study, scientific explorations of “gaydar”, and even the authors' research on 2015 MLB Managers' and Hall of Fame Baseball Managers' playing statistics that indicate today's managers are players with “disappointing” careers.
The book actively demonstrates applicability of its psychological concepts beyond sports. The idea of the underdog surpasses international borders and industries. It is relevant to attitudes regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to diverging views based on perceptions of Obama as the front-runner or the underdog, and to a business' capitalization of the Underdog Brand Biography (UBB) to humanize its company and drive consumer identification. The underdog concept similarly informs Hillary Clinton's self-positioning strategy.
Car dealers are known to exploit the biological concept of, or even to accelerate the effects of arousal to increase likelihood of impulse purchases, and casino operators painstakingly foster an atmosphere of arousal in its den. Politicians use sandbagging tactics - the ploy of managing one's and others' expectations.
Sports-fanatical readers may or may not cherish certain mentions of athletes within the book. Fans of Michael Jordan have to confront the way Jordan was described as a “tormentor” rather than a “mentor” in the book. He was said to be ill-suited to being a talent evaluator, and was observed to be the “ultimate illustration of the lack of correlation between playing excellence and post-retirement sports success”. Or the story of Jimmy Connors' outstanding twenty-plus-years career winning a record 109 singles titles that failed to translate into being an equally outstanding coach. On the other hand, readers might or might not feel strongly about the manager of Philadelphia Athletics, Connie Mack, who kept his job despite seventeen last-place finishes.
In paying homage to sports, the authors did not leave out certain legal issues that plagued the sports world. Though brief, the coverage of the Stewart-Ward tragedy that led to Ward's family filing a wrongful-death lawsuit against Stewart is gripping.
This Is Your Brain on Sports is a highly recommended book, even and especially for non-sports enthusiasts - the reader may occasionally get lost in the midst of unfamiliar sports rules, sports-specific terminology, and the seemingly infinite sports personalities, he or she however will benefit from gaining a novel and fresh set of perspectives on the analyses of psychological issues.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review.