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Why We Rage: The Science

Article from Changing the Game Project by John O'Sullivan

Have you ever noticed when you go to your child’s soccer game that you react one way to bad calls, aggressive fouls, or intense situations in your game, but have little or no reaction to similar situations in the game prior to yours, where you have no emotional stake?


Can you sit there with a neutral demeanor while your child warms up, watching two teams hack each other to pieces, and the referee turns a blind eye, yet feel nothing? But once your child’s game kicks off, do you feel your emotions rise, the tension heighten, and everything change?


If your answer is yes, then you are perfectly normal. Nearly every parent, player, and coach goes through these same emotions. Science tells us why: mirror processing.


In the 1990s, Italian researchers stumbled upon a class of neurons in the brain that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when that individual witnesses another perform an action. This is why we yawn when we see others yawn, and flinch when we see someone stub a toe.


Do you ever smile when you see someone smile? These reactions are governed by your mirror neurons, which allow you to not only simulate the actions of others but the emotions behind those actions as well! Researchers have used fMRI technology to test the effect of emotional attachment on brain function, and the results are extraordinary.


When you are coaching your team’s game, watching a loved one participate in an athletic contest, or even watching your favorite college football team play on Saturday, you are actually using a different region of your brain to judge a pass interference call or judge offsides, then you would in a neutral situation! The neutral decision-making areas of your brain actually disengage, and you use your inferior parietal lobe (IPL). The result: your brain reacts AS IF YOU WERE the one performing the action. This is why we lose our heads so often at our kid’s games. Our brains react as if it were us being fouled, or we were the one unjustly having a goal called back.






The same mirror processing that governs our behavior is also why teams feed off of each others energy, often either peaking and dominating together, or sulking and giving up at the same time. Team emotions are contagious, both in a positive and negative way!


So what does this mean for us? First of all, as adults involved in youth sports, it is good to know that there is a scientific explanation for our sudden emotional change. It is up to us to prevent this from becoming a behavioral change as well. We must recognize that if we are intense and out of control, our players likely will mirror that behavior. If a parent or a coach is yelling and criticizing a player, to the point that the player puts his head down and loses confidence, then other players feed off that negative emotion.


By the same token, positive vibes from parents and coaches, and relaxed attitudes toward bad calls or intense situations will also be mirrored by our athletes. If you want your team to relax, then you must relax. If you want your team to be positive, then you must be positive. If you want your players to bring the right attitude and state of mind to training and games, then you must as well.

My parting thought is this; the next game you go to, act exactly how you want your players, your child, or their team to react. Get the other coaches and spectators to do the same. See what happens. I think you will see quite the correlation.

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