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June 22, 2016


Bruce Murray

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When you hear the word "team," do you think of your associates at work? More likely Manchester United, the New York Yankees, or an athletic Olympic team comes to mind.

What distinguishes a team from a mere group is that teams share a sense of purpose to which they dedicate profound commitment. This creates a synergy that maximizes each person's strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. In short, a team performs at a higher level than the sum of what its individual members could reach.

Whether you play sports or just watch your favorite teams, L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers have written This is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon, in which they refer to "all the... craziness that courses through the sports ecosystem." The book comically reviews some highly irrational behaviors, such as footballers remaining on the field after enduring concussions, or a fan "… risking life and limb to snag a cheesy T-shirt fired out of a cannon." Despite the apparent lunacy, the authors conclude that, "[It's] really just your regular brain acting like it does in other contexts."

The seeming abnormality of sports behavior is a result of physicality – whether we are on the field or merely watching. We breathe faster and our cells are teeming with hormones. We lose perspective, "to the point where the grief we feel for our team's loss is at the same level as for the death of a loved one."

The teeming cellular responses lead us to some pretty wacky conclusions. No matter how many shots in a row we have missed, our next is sure to go in. We're convinced that our underdog team can beat anybody! Our player may have stepped near the line, but their player was clearly over the line. We'll forgive any cheaters on our side because they can't be anywhere near as bad as the other team's cheaters.

We are just teeming with biases, irrationality and self-delusion. Menand cheerfully concludes that, "The whole basis for being a sports fan is that there are no consequences for hypocrisy… Sports is one of those consequence-free zones in life in which a double standard is acceptable… Sports is a vacation from prudence."

Two questions arise. First, do we have a "sports switch" that we can turn on and off at will, or do our fandom juices flow with the prospect of any competition? Second, are these effects limited to athletics, or will they arise any time we are in "team mode?"

Because the essence of team is commitment, I don't believe that we can turn off a "sports switch" once it's enabled. The switch, however, is analog. It burns brightest when the stakes are high, such as a championship game, or when the opponent is an arch-rival, whereupon even a horrible season can be salvaged with a victory.

I also believe that the sports brain applies to all varieties of teams. Two examples: when you are head to head with a rival family, and when your work team is competing with another to obtain limited resources. The commitment and high stakes push the team beyond ordinary limits. While you might accomplish more than you ever thought possible, you might also abandon all prudence in the process.

How do we keep our teams from crossing into the abyss of ethical recklessness? Some would say that the practice of Buddhist-inspired mindfulness would keep us on track.

Dr Miles Neale reminds us of Buddha’s foundational training: "[We must] develop vigilance and sensitivity in our behaviors and interactions… Avoid these ten non-virtues: harming others, taking what is not given, inappropriate sexual relations, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle gossip, envy, harmful intent, and an unrealistic view."

I’m glad that Buddha doesn't sit next to me when I'm cheering my favorite team!

The essential question remains: Do teams outside of sports induce the "sports brain" in their members? And if so, how do we keep them from sliding into consequence-free zones in which a double standard is acceptable? These team leaders have a heavy burden to whip up the frenzy that results in great productivity, without succumbing to the rest of the "... craziness that courses through the sports ecosystem." Sounds like material for a future blog.

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