The next couple blog posts I really want to dive into the idea that sports culture and teams work the same way as any cultural group. I want to talk about what psychological aspects of human nature lead to various sports phenomenon and how we can use this information to deconstruct the way we compete.
Sports, Peers and Injury
My background in competitive skiing has meant that the threat of serious injury has never been far. This is a reality that strikes many different athletes as they progress in their sport and push to perform at higher and higher levels. But why does this have to be so? Why does the threat have to progress as our game does? What sort of psychological processes lead to this increase?
One possible answer takes us to the field of social psychology and various facets of social identity theory. In short, social identity theory states that we define who we are by looking to the people around us and the groups we belong to. For example, I identify myself as American because that is where I live and most people I interact with are also American. This theory not only describes our identities as social constructions, but also as being fluid and subject to change. This means that over time the extent to which we identify as one thing or another can wax and wane and change based on the environment in which we exist. In the context of athletes social identity theory would predict that the more time you spend playing a sport and the better you get at it, the more valuable it becomes to your identity.
So how does this relate to increased likelihood of injury? Well, to understand that we need to learn about a second social psychology theory known as “Social Proof.” Social Proof essentially states that as a member of a group, we look to others to inform our behavior and we try to copy the behaviors that we deem as correct. In the realm of athletics, this means that we look to our friends or teammates who are the best at their respective sport and try to copy their behavior. So essentially as our identification with a sport increases, so does our value for the sport, therefore causing us to spend more and more time trying to copy the behavior of people we look up to as athletes in that sport.
Now we are at a place where the threat of injury starts to get larger and larger. In a sport, where higher levels of play leads to higher levels of risk, it is not hard to see how this happens. Say I am a young kid who spends his whole day thinking about skiing (I once was), I am going to spend a lot of time thinking about the tricks and stunts that pro skiers are doing. As a young kid I neither have the ability to do them safely nor the strength to walk away from a serious fall. Now I am in a headspace that could lead to me behaving dangerously and injuring myself.
Having athletic idols in a sport that we can learn from and respect is not always a bad thing. Pushing ourselves to try and be like the best is something that is valuable to our progression as athletes. However, it is best if we try to do this in a controlled manner in which we never step so far out of our own ability that we expose ourselves to undue risk. This is where good training and guidance becomes essential. We need to be able to know not only how to push ourselves, but also when we are ready to push. This is one of many lessons that a person can learn through better understanding how their own psychology affects their athletic life