It's All in your Head, Eagle: 'Psychology' and BC Sports

Most high school athletes never get the chance to play their sport at an NCAA-affiliated college. And everyone knows how difficult it is to have the opportunity to become a professional athlete. However, not many really take into account how few high school athletes get to play in the NCAA. In a recent study conducted by the NCAA, each sport was analyzed to shed light on how many athletes make it from high school to the NCAA. The findings are kind of crazy. Men’s hockey has the highest percentage of 11 percent of high school athletes playing in college. Next is baseball, with 6.1 percent, followed by football with 5.7 percent.

Women have even less of a chance to play sports in college, with women’s basketball leading with 3.3 percent. The chances of becoming a professional athlete is even slimmer, with each sport being significantly under 1 percent.

So, when high school athletes actually do get the opportunity to play their sport at the collegiate level, what happens then? How do they mentally cope with the pressures of playing for a university, with their fellow students counting on them to win, and with the media following them closer than they ever have before?

I was able to get the opportunity to interview BC psychology professor Andrea Heberlein, Ph.D, about the psychology encountered in college sports. She set the framework for what the second half of this piece is about--how BC sports have or haven't been "psyched" out this year.

JK: How is the psyche of a college sports team affected by the negative rumblings of the media? Also, how do the rumors about key players who are unhappy, or leaving, affect the other players?

AH: In trying to understand both of these, ideas about self-fulfilling prophecies are really critical. In one classic experiment, first-grade students whose teachers were told they were going to do well (before the teachers had even met them) ended up doing better over the course of that school year than other students about whom it had been said they would not do well—even though this “information” was assigned randomly at the beginning of the year.

In another study, students were given rats to train in a maze-learning experiment. Some students were told their particular rats were very quick learners, and other students were told that their rats were very slow learners. In reality, they were identical rats, randomly assigned to the students. All students were supposed to run identical training protocols. Nonetheless, the rats given to students who expected quick learning learned quickly, and the rats given to students who expected slow learning learned slowly.

This and many, many other studies show that people’s expectations about someone can lead them to interact with that individual in subtly different ways that often end up leading to confirmations of those expectations, without either side being aware that they were changing their behavior.

JK: The psyche of a team is obviously affected when they’re put up to an extremely high standard, and can’t perform in their conference or divisional championships. Where do they go from there, with more of  a postseason to go?

AH: One theory of “choking” behavior in sports is that it results from an “ironic process” of mental control. Here, the classic example is trying not to think of something—for example, try not to think of a white bear. If you try this for a minute or two, you’ll often find that you become more likely to think of a white bear. The theory, from psychologist Daniel Wegner, is that by trying to NOT think of something, you actually become more likely to think of that thing (due to a combination of an effortful suppression process and an automatic “checking” or “monitoring” process—the automatic process sometimes wins out over the other one). If you apply this idea to choking in an athletic context, you can predict that focusing too much on something someone is trying to avoid doing, can lead that person (or team) to become ironically more likely to do exactly that thing.

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So, how does this transfer over to BC sports? Well, for one, a few different BC teams attract a lot of media attention - mainly football, basketball, and hockey.

Very recently, the BC Basketball has been the all over the news. With the firing of basketball's Steve Donahue, and their abysmal record (not counting the win over Syracuse), the negative rumblings of the media has to have affected the team. Rumors of some of the key players getting ideas to pick up and leave have also entered the camp.

The waning days of the Donahue era were rough: players advertised possible departures, and team morale sank to the floor. What happened? Jono Keedy / Gavel Media

The waning days of the Donahue era were rough: players advertised possible departures, and team morale sank to the hardwood. What happened? Jono Keedy / Gavel Media

No one can really be sure what will happen; but as Professor Heberlein explained, the players will register the different stories floating around the twittersphere, and no doubt will have some cognition of other players who are getting antsy with their current situations. Maybe they won’t directly confront these issues, but they will most likely slip into their subconscious actions and expectations, possibly leading to rifts throughout the team. The best course of action? The team should confront their issues, and try to piece themselves back together after a tough year.

In a breakdown of the second question, BC’s hockey team has had a fantastic year. Winning the Beanpot, holding (until very recently) an 18-game winning streak, scoring copious amounts of goals and letting in very few and strengthening the chemistry in their lines, BC’s team has been very impressive. They were even ranked as the best hockey team in the nation for quite some time. However, they were quite easily handled by Notre Dame in the Hockey East Quarterfinals - to the surprise of not only BC’s fans, but to the hockey world in general. BC had been expected to easily trounce over each Hockey East team on their way to capturing the Hockey East title, and would then go on to secure the NCAA Championship.

This loss has definitely put many at a loss for words. Why now, after a nearly perfect year, has BC toppled from the top? Again, Professor Heberlein offers a very plausible response: After being expected to win and win and win, they focus too much on not choking, and--ironically--lose.

Sports and psychology are so intertwined, and as upsets like Mercer-Duke teach us annually via the draining anxiety of March Madness, getting "psyched" out is a thing.

Parity is also real in college basketball though, and Mercer played one hell of a basketball game. But Duke definitely focused on not choking so much that they indeed choked, as Wegner theorized.

Back to college hockey though, and the last chance this school has at winning anything of value this year: Maybe this loss was what the team needed to get their heads straight?

Maybe, they needed to be beaten by Notre Dame to make them understand that they need to put 100 percent of their effort into every game. Sure, they’re very talented--but talent only takes a team so far. In order to win the Big Dance of College Hockey, the team can’t simply skate by; they’ve got to give it everything they’ve got. Mental state included.

*A big thanks to Professor Andrea Heberlein, who was a major help in explaining the psychology aspects in such a clear and detailed way!

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