New York Knicks star Amare Stoudemire scored 20 points in an NBA playoff win Sunday, but the bandage on his left hand reminded fans that he’d recently made headlines in quite a different way: smashing the glass of a fire extinguisher case after losing in Miami six days earlier.
Of course, he’s hardly the first pro athlete to hurt himself in frustration. Phillies pitcher Ryan Madson broke his toe in 2010 when he kicked a chair after blowing a save, for example. A couple years before, Khalil Greene of the San Diego Padres broke his left hand by punching out a storage chest in the dugout. And New York Yankees fans will recall pitchers Kevin Brown and A.J. Burnett injuring their hands in angry confrontations with a wall and some doors, respectively.
What’s with this behavior? How can professionals get so upset they harm themselves? Sports psychologists say it can happen in the high-pressure world of winning and losing, with people who identify themselves with their performance and, frankly, are supposed to be aggressive.
But after all, one expert notes, it can happen to us ordinary mortals, too.
When you get angry, your heart beats faster and blood pressure rises. In men, testosterone levels can rise. Some research shows heightened activity in the left side of the brain.
With all that going on, things can happen.
Stoudemire cut his hand after the loss last week when he swung his arm backward and hit the glass on the case.
“Everybody gets upset,” he explained to reporters. “You’re so passionate for the game.”
That’s certainly true of the pros, says Jack Watson, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University who has studied anger and violence in sports.
Athletes commit a lot of their time, energy and identity to their sport, he said. So when they lose or don’t come through in the clutch, “it actually affects their self-perception of who they are,” he said. “The anger is an expression of … extreme frustration, because the way they define themselves has been negatively influenced.”
Even when they hit some inanimate object, it might make them feel better by releasing pent-up tension, he said.
“Professional athletes have been trained their whole lives to be physical, to express themselves in physical ways,” Watson said. They’re paid to be aggressive while playing, and “being able to turn that switch off and being able to get back to what society expects of you, it’s probably difficult at times.”
In fact, physical off-the-field expressions of frustration are probably more acceptable in sports than in an ordinary office, said Jonathan F. Katz, a sports psychologist in New York City who works with amateur, collegiate professional athletes and teams. If somebody did in an office what Stoudemire did, “it would probably be looked at much more negatively,” he said.
Katz said athletes frequently do things like that, but if they’re not stars it rarely gets noticed publicly. And the biggest stars are often cut a bit of slack because “in this world, we tend to tolerate bad behavior on the part of people who excel. That’s not uncommon in the sports world,” Katz said.
Katz also noted that athletes work in a far more intense environment of win-lose, succeed-fail, than most people do. So that can produce more intense emotions, he said, but “the sign of a great athlete is they don’t get too high or too low.”
Despite the differences between elite athletes and ordinary folks, it would be “a little bit hypocritical” to look at incidents like Stoudemire’s and conclude that pro athletes are undisciplined and prone to problems in managing their anger, says Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist in Fords, N.J., who wrote a book on handling anger in sports.
“Let’s not lose track of the fact that there are lot of people who get frustrated that go home and hit their spouses,” or get drunk and then drive, Abrams said.
Athletes can use anger to perform better as long as they keep it under control, Abrams said. It can help a football defensive lineman who has to take on a 350-pound opponent, but it can hurt a golfer who’s lining up a putt, he noted.
Anger is simply a normal human emotion, said Abrams, who said he trains clients to work if off by lifting weights, running or other activities that won’t hurt themselves or others.
As for Stoudemire, at least he didn’t do something worse like attack somebody, and he has taken responsibility for his actions and worked his way back to helping his team again, Abrams said.
“In the grand scheme of things, what more can you ask?” Abrams said. “The idea that we’re going to handle every situation perfectly is a fantasy.”