Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

The Sports Psychology of Academia: Part I


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!


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

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