Are we having fun yet?

11 01 2010

Happy Hank

I’m not the most dedicated hockey fan, but recently I have been following the Vancouver Canucks as they move up the NorthWest Division. In the process, we have seen two hat-tricks by Alex Burrows, two fights by Rick Rypien, a slew of goals by Samuelsson and the Sedins and a pair of shoot-outs. I thought it might be interesting to explore “winning” through the lens of neurobiology.

When I was in high school. I was cajoled into being the stats guy for the senior basketball team and then the trainer for the senior football team. In the process, I spent a lot of time on the side-lines and I can tell you, it’s uncanny how closely the ‘fun quotient’ parallels performance on the field.

Well, of course, you say. Winning is fun. No. I’m saying, I could predict when we would start scoring, before the fact, based on how much the guys were smiling! And, I think you could see the same thing with the Vancouver Canucks and their opponents this past few weeks. Let me give you a few examples…

If you watched the players warm up, skate or talk on the bench, you can tell when they are having fun. Regardless of the intensity of the game, when the mood was up, the players seemed looser.You could see this even if they were getting outshot, even if they were getting penalties, even if they made dumb turnovers and even when pucks were bouncing off goalposts and crossbars left and right,  When they relaxed they, stick-handled more adeptly, were quicker on their feet, made sharper passes, checked harder and always seemed to have their sticks in the right place at the right time. There is a reason for that.

In the low stress state, the body is in what we call parasympathetic mode. That is the nervous system’s nurturing mode. That suggests looser muscles, slower heart rate more blood to the brain allowing increased rational and more flexible thinking and … a sense of humour.

Having fun releases endorphins which increases pain tolerance, dopamine which improves focus, and satisfaction, adrenaline which increases motivation and energy and serotonin which improves mood and confidence. All in all, an almost unbeatable cocktail of feel good chemicals.

The high stress state is also known as the  sympathetic mode. That is the nervous system’s fight or flight state. That is accompanied by tighter muscles, faster heart rate and less blood to the brain, facilitating rapid reflexes, but not much nuance. Sympathetic mode may increase performance if you are a sprinter or a weight-lifter, which require lightning fast, but very predictable effort. Sympathetic mode may not be so helpful if you have to think on your feet.

If you want to wheel and deal, it’s better to be strong, but flexible, able to adjust your attack based on a number of scenarios, rather than just an on-or off switch. It’s better to be having fun. Take the Burrows and the Sedins. When they are having fun, it’s like watching the ballet: Burrows looks up ice, finds Henrik who carries across the line, streaks right, drops left to Daniel who slams it home, GOAL! Wow. That was fun.

On the other hand, if you’re angry at the ref, or trying to get revenge for a late hit or scared you might lose in a shoot-out…there’s too much negative vibe and that spells trouble. Take Rypien for example. In the first fight on Saturday night he threw a few jack-hammers and had a slight upper hand.  Then Prust landed that uppercut and Ripien kind of faded, but later in the penalty box, you could see he was upset, which he then carried with him through the rest of the game, drawing Prust into another fight, but also sucking a certain amount of energy out of the team as they watched his already bruised and bloody face take a few more gut wrenching hits.

Seeing a team-mate get hurt triggers the release of a massive amount of the neurotransmitter GABA. It has an inhibitory effect on motor function and drops blood pressure. That tiny bit of reservation, that tiny bit of hesitation, that tiny decrease in motivation… is the difference between a successful poke check and watching your man skate around you. Hockey is a game of micro-seconds. Whoever wants it more, wins.

Finally, in overtime, watching Iginla laughing on the bench, joshing with the ref, I thought…OhOh. When the opposing team is laughing in over-time, that’s a bad sign (for us). And sure enough they were the more relaxed team, especially in the shootout when they scored 3/3. Did you see that little move that Lundmark pulled at the last second. He weaves right on the forehand, kicks his foot out to the left to distract Luongo, then flips the puck to his backhand and taps it in the corner. The guy looks like he’s back in the school-yard, dipsy-doodling. You can’t do that when you’re stressed.

Flames move to the top of the division. Ouch. Are we having fun yet?

Dr. Anthony Ocana MSc, MD, CCFP, ABAM –  Special interest in Mental Health and Addiction –  North Shore ADHD Clinic –  www.northshoreADHD.com

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2 responses

22 01 2010
Dr. Michael Ocana

Agreed. Sympathetic dominant states lead to rigid and inflexible strategies although they mobilize energy. Balanced autonomic states are more flexible and fluid. Parasympathetic dominant states however are also problematic. These are shame states. They lead to interpersonal withdrawal, poor eye contact and energy conservation – not good for generating goal scoring opportunities. Secure attachments and pro social team environments are conducive to balanced emotional states. Cheers, Michael

22 02 2010
Anthony Ocana

Your point is well taken. In a game where the energy is so intense that it becomes nearly chaotic, turning on the parasympathetic state with a smile can facilitate the skills that win games. However, when the game’s energy is more in the neutral territory, seeing your team mate get bloodied in a fist-fight or getting a penalty can induce the parasympathetic state which can then drag the energy down to the point that the other team may get the upper hand. Being in parasympathetic mode does not necessarily induce shame. On the other hand, feeling shamed does lead to a parasympathetic state. The point is that both laughing and shaming can induce the parasympathetic state, but the outcome depends both on which emotions are driving the parasympathetic state and what the baseline energy is at the time.

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