There is a wave of change surging over Australian sport. The trend towards “fast games” seem to be synchronized with a decrease in concentration span. An inability for spectators to sit quietly and reflect. Rather an “I’m bored generation” seems to be spawning sporting formats that are quicker, faster and shorter than their previous versions, but at what cost?
Cricket is now played over three formats, test, one day, and twenty – twenty. Netball has just introduced its Fast5, tennis has its Fast4 and track and field has just announced its Nitro Athletics. The obvious drivers are marketing and television, but so is society’s inability to focus on anything for more than a brief moment. Television viewers channel surf or return to their IPhones during advertisements, but also during any periods of play that they perceive as boring. For our youth that may mean not watching sport at all, because all breaks in play are now experienced as boring.
We need to look at the wider social issues around technology use, and not just blindly adapt, adapt and adapt. The increases in the speed of play, the number of back-to-back matches, expectations and social networking have escalated the demands placed on our athletes. Ever increasing demands on limited mental energy reserves that when depleted will result in mental ill health. Are we at risk of compromising our athlete’s health to satiate the consumer’s drive of instantaneous reward?
In the 1930’s Behavioural Psychologist B.F. Skinner coined the term “operant conditioning”. Referring to the ability to elicit a behaviour change by providing a direct reinforcement after a desired response. Skinner’s research was conducted on rats who learnt to press a lever to get a pellet of food. Today we are the rats and flicking through social media for a dopamine hit is our brain food.
Dopamine is a reward based neurochemical. We learnt to train hard as competitors, or wait patiently as spectators for the next point to be scored before we received that dopamine hit. Today we are sourcing our dopamine from our technology with little or no effort and losing patience from activities where we have to earn it.
Patience as a virtue is rapidly being lost. We see this when our tennis players struggle to back-up between tournaments. Either patience hasn’t been trained well enough, or the temptation to spend hours on computer games or social media in-between matches equates to neural depletion. Once stores are deplete an emotional numbness occurs that makes it hard to get excited about the next game, or the next anything.
Psychologist Carol Dweck, researched the importance of patience for lifelong achievement. In her marshmallow experiment young children were given a marshmallow they could eat now, or if they waited for 15 minutes they could have a second marshmallow. These children were followed over time and those who had the patience to delay their self-gratification not only received the second marshmallow, but achieved more successful life outcomes. A sort of mental endurance was being developed in individuals with patience.
So how do we build patience? Perhaps we need to rethink test cricket and appreciate it for a whole host of less obvious reasons, such as providing the community mental down time. A time when spectators experience periods of calm interspersed with highs and lows, forming a more natural rhythm of life. The social opportunities to connect over a common passion and to just hang out. Perhaps we also need to realistically look at specialist’s formats requiring specialist players. If you are a surgeon no-one expects you to be able to operate on all parts of the body, rather surgeons have their areas of specialty so that they get really good at what they do. If we are going to have multiple versions of a sport then expect to have specialist athletes who concentrate on various formats, rather than expecting the same athletes to turn up again and again without an adequate down time to refuel not just physically but mentally.
Gayelene Clews is a Performance Psychologist and author of “Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete”. She has worked with many of the very best sporting teams in the world including Olympic and World Champions. Clews applies science to success in her “Wired for Success” business workshops for emotionally intelligent organisations. Contact Gayelene via firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase her book www.wiredtoplay.com.