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The Sports Psychology of Academia: Part I

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Skaters from the Twin City Derby Girls (including Mrs. Myrmecos) have got the opposing jammer's number.

Skaters from the Twin City Derby Girls (including Mrs. Myrmecos) have got the opposing jammer's number. Photo by Alex Wild.

For me, roller derby began with a very steep learning curve. I didn’t know how to skate, I didn’t know the rules, and so every practice left me physically and mentally exhausted. I did bring my own skill set to the sport: I’ve been an athlete my whole life, and played many a contact sport, and so some parts of roller derby – the physical fitness, hitting, body awareness, cross-training and nutrition – came easily.

After a while though, I hit the limit of the edge my athletic performance gave me. And so I had to start reading derby blogs for strategy, increase my off-skates workouts, and learn about roller derby gear to make sure I was using the right materials. I attended some clinics. I tried new moves until spectacular falls became small falls, and small falls became no falls.

I’ve become, I think, a pretty good player. I skate for a young but nationally ranked team, and I have exceptional, talented teammates and coaches (just see a few of them above).

Yet you know enough about sports to know even great teams don’t win every single bout they play, and that when they lose it isn’t always to the more talented team. Most of us understand that in sports, we can’t actually control whether we win or lose. We can only control our preparation leading up to, and our reaction to game conditions.

The best athletes recalibrate their understanding of success: success is less about winning or losing, and more about whether they played their best game. How did they prepare for the event? How did they handle adversity, including bad luck or unfairness? Were they proactive or reactive in the face of their opponents? Did they put in maximum effort?

Success in sport, then, is context-dependent. And to increase your chances of success in the traditional sense (winning), you need to increase your success in the factors that are under your control. You need to get to the point where you can anticipate and handle most contexts.

Academia (heck, most of the jobs of most of you reading today) is the same way. We can control only ourselves and how we react to given situations.

So why are we so hard on ourselves when we fail?

* * *

This summer, my league brought in sports psychologist Dr. Brent Walker to talk to us about how to take the next step in our mental performance. Dr. Walker came as a kindness to a student of his, but was so constructive we would have paid for a million more sessions. Alas, Columbia has just scooped him up from Eastern Illinois University and so now they get to benefit from his wisdom instead.

The first step of our session was to list the factors we cannot control related to performance in roller derby bouts. These included:

  • The floor surface (grippy or slick floors impact our ability to do certain kinds of moves)
  • Referees
  • Fans
  • Attitude of the opposing team
  • Ability of the opposing team
  • Injuries and who we can roster
  • Personal, family, or work stressors
  • Luck

Then we discussed the importance of planning ahead of time for as many of these factors as possible to better control our reactions. So for instance, if we’re skating in an away bout and don’t know anything about the floor, we bring several kinds of wheels to try out during our warmups.

What are those factors for academics, particularly academic scientists? Here are a few that come to mind for me:

  • Whether laboratory materials are delayed, backordered
  • Research participant retention issues
  • My tenure & promotion committee and their decisions
  • My collaborators’ priorities
  • My departmental colleagues’ priorities
  • My students’ priorities, commitments, responsiveness to my mentoring
  • Journals’ manuscript decisions
  • Grant reviewers’ decisions
  • The quality of the pool I am up against for manuscripts and grants
  • My husband’s work priorities
  • My daughter’s health and wellness (to some extent – what I mean here is I cannot control when she gets sick and I have to miss work)
  • My daughter’s school’s days off
  • Crappy luck (things breaking or not working)

What other factors seem to be beyond our control? How do you plan ahead to neutralize or change them?

I’ll have a follow-up post Wednesday on the second part of this exercise. Discuss!


Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. leafwarbler 2:48 pm 09/17/2012

    So why are we so hard on ourselves? And are academics (conditioned to be?) harder on ourselves when we lose than athletes? I look forward to your next post, Kate.

    To your list of things we have no control over, I might add at least two more:
    Grant agencies’ priorities and funding constraints
    Broader social-political context which determines funding priorities

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  2. 2. tala1 7:18 pm 09/17/2012

    this very much resembles how I coached my little leaguer’s (boys & girls). I had 3 or 4 standard game “talks” to break out over each season and the gist of one of them was:
    you cannot control your opponents, the umpires, the weather, your parents, your teammates, your coaches but… you have 100% complete control over your attitude and your effort. If you pay attention and hustle good things will happen no matter how much or little talent you possess. And I won’t have to yell at you in front of everyone (which was always a giant bluff), never been a yeller, they’d figure it out halfway thru a season. Well played baseball is cerebral, a thinking man’s game, one step ahead, etc. Unlike the other bigtime team sports displayed emotion is almost always a pothole in the dark.

    was consistently surprised by how well the younger (9-10 y/o) would grasp the above concepts and eventually learn to use them. I was equally disappointed at how poorly the older (13-15 y/o) players would fail to comprehend these nuggets of wisdom the moment they set a cleat on the field. Don’t know how those jr. high/middle school teachers do it – surely I’d be in a tower w/ a rifle after just a few wks…

    from what I recall watching roller derby late at night well before the advent of cable tv, (shown by the local channel on UHF usually), you’ve got some moxie steppin out there. That rink is a no-sissies zone for sure. You still get to shove people over the rails? I’m gonna have to go watch Whip It again.

    – dave

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  3. 3. TTLG 10:14 pm 09/17/2012

    I am not sure the two situations are all that closely related. In competitions, especially team competitions, winning or losing can hinge on relatively small things: one small mistake or one brilliant play can make all the difference. Also, our own attitude plays a major part. The reason Michael Phelps did not do as well in this Olympics than the previous one had more to do with his own attitude than the attitude or abilities of his competition.

    Work or research projects are entirely different. One slip or a brilliant paper written by someone else does not cause our projects to fail. But the various delay-causing problems such as those listed here are inevitable. The real problem I have seen is that project schedules are written during the “irrational exuberance” period and never seem to take into account even the most predictable of delaying factors such as the inevitable cases of the flu or even vacation time.

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  4. 4. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 1:27 pm 09/18/2012

    TTLG, thanks for sharing your perspective. In my experience, relatively small things have had massive effects on my own career. And those things, for better or worse, are out of my control. But as I imply in the post, there is a part two tomorrow where I talk about controllable factors, and the main one is definitely attitude.

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  5. 5. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 1:29 pm 09/18/2012

    Tala1, I’m glad you share that perspective with your players. That’s so interesting that the younger kids seem to get it more than the older kids. Perhaps the older ones have internalized the external messages about what constitutes success by then?

    I play flat-track derby, so there are no rails, but we do usually have “suicide seating” along the edge of the track. I’ve knocked an opponent or two into fans, and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before I end up falling on someone myself.

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  6. 6. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 1:32 pm 09/18/2012

    leafwarbler, such important additions! This also is related to the overall crunch we’re all seeing in science funding. My husband just heard back that his most recent NIH submission was in the 18th percentile. A few years ago this was the fundable range. Now the fundable range is the 7th percentile or so. But what’s the difference between a 7th and 18th percentile proposal? Both are going to be excellent, transformative projects even if you could somehow demonstrate how the 7th percentile one is better. We’re at a point where we just aren’t funding enough awesome science, and that affects the science we do, our career trajectories, and the pressures we get from our universities.

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  7. 7. DarrellJames 11:23 am 05/13/2014

    I think I may be a bit late to the party but if you need more information on the subgect of sports psychology you can visit

    Link to this

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