Punched By Your Own Emotions!

I’m a big sports fan, especially of college football, and an ESPN junkie. So, it was with some dismay that I watched the kick-off weekend of college football start off with a “sucker punch” by an Oregon football player that knocked a Boise State player to his knees. While the Boise State player is not without blame as he taunted the Oregon player at the end of the game (Boise State won), reaction has been especially harsh to the Oregon player’s behavior.

Replaying the scene over and over on every sports show, commentators, school officials, and fans expressed their outrage and disgust at LeGarrette Blount’s violent punch to the jaw of Byron Hout after being slapped on the shoulder and shouted at from behind by Hout. Blount, who was expected to be drafted by the NFL in the second or third round, has been told he will not be allowed to play in any remaining games for Oregon and sports analysts say he’ll be lucky if he’s now drafted at all.

It’s easy to attack this violence as “outrageous,” “stupid,” “terrible decision-making,” and “showing a lack of respect for his teammates, the school, and others,” but I find it amazing that at no time in the media or school discussion was it acknowledged that in the heat of the moment, we’re unable to think and make a rational decision.

It’s been almost fifteen years since the groundbreaking work of Joseph LeDoux and other neuroscientists was expertly conveyed by Daniel Goleman in his often-quoted book, Emotional Intelligence. From the beginning of this book, we quickly learn that “emotional explosions” like Blount’s response are “neural hijackings.” We aren’t consciously thinking and so can’t reason our way out of making a horrible mistake.

Goleman explains that “the hijacking occurs in an instant, triggering this reaction crucial moments before the neocortex, the thinking brain, has had a chance to glimpse fully what is happening, let alone decide if it is a good idea.” (p. 14, emphasis added)

After viewing the scene many times, it appears this is exactly what happened to Blount, as it was an instantaneous response. There was no premeditation or thinking about what his appropriate response should be. While the rest of us may not have the misfortune of experiencing this type of hijacking on such a big stage, I bet you can think of times when you embarrassed yourself with a physical or verbal outburst that dramatically exceeded the expected societal response to the situation. I know I can. Replaying the incident later,  you likely had no idea what came over you.

Unbeknownst to your conscious mind, your meltdown probably occurred because you had past experiences that were triggered in the tense situation you faced and told your brain you were in a dangerous, life-threatening situation (even if it makes no logical sense now). When you encounter a situation that “triggers an emotional memory” in your amygdalae (one in each hemisphere of the brain), they send out an immediate signal to run away, or to fight as if your life is being threatened. Some of us learn to fight verbally with crude, loud statements or cutting, insulting remarks, and some learn to fight with our hands and bodies. But we fight and then we think.

So telling a player that fighting is never the solution to taunting, is a stupid, career-limiting move, and shows a complete lack of respect for his peers doesn’t work. Athletes, like other human beings, still engage in stupid, aggressive behavior. Tiger Woods still swears and throws his golf clubs at times (supposedly this past weekend). Professional football coaches still get in embarrassing fights with players and other coaches.

We, like a football player, coach, or superstar athlete, are at the mercy of our past experiences in heated moments unless we learn tools to catch ourselves in the ramp-up to fight or flight stage (doesn’t always work because that ramp up to “fight” happens in moments), or acknowledge we have a problem and do the psychological work to heal the past.

There is no doubt that Blount should feel the sting of punishment, as we’re all ultimately accountable for our actions. And, for no other reason than to push him and some of his peers and coaches around the nation to take the step to find a program to help them lessen the power of their amgydale in emotionally charged situations. This punishment will be wasted though if all involved ignore the psychological reasons behind the outburst and treat him like a criminal or loser.

My dream is that soon we will acknowledge what happens in these situations as completely different from premeditated aggressive behavior and treat them accordingly. An emotional hijacking can be scary for all involved, but it has next to nothing to do with our value as talented, smart athletes, employees, and leaders and loving human beings. It’s a situation that requires a form of therapy that specializes in acknowledging, reframing, and healing the past.

With the role sports play in this society, imagine how many men and women would begin to seek help and achieve their full potential if professional and college sports media, organizations, and athletes invested as much time in understanding the brain and its response to fear and hostile situations on and off the field, as they do understanding the implications of a physical injury.

If you’ve experienced an emotional hijacking before, seek help from a trained professional to greatly reduce both the severity and the likelihood of another similar response. Don’t assume your willpower or beating yourself up by telling yourself it will never happen again will work.

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