Q&A with Sam Sommers: Co-author of This is Your Brain on Sports


Sports is a powerful tool for youth development because there are so many ways in which it mirrors life. Participants learn to work with other people, solve problems creatively, try new things, keep doing things even when it’s difficult - all skills that can help them off the field. Tufts University psychology professor Sam Sommers and Sports Illustrated Executive Editor L. Jon Wertheim have written the book This is Your Brain on Sports, that looks at the ways in which the sport world and real world intersect and what sports can tell us about human behavior. Our Chief Program Officer, Megan Bartlett recently sat down with Sam to see what youth sports coaches should know about what happens to your brain on sports!

Megan Bartlett: You’ve interviewed a lot of interesting people on what makes successful sports experiences at every level. What can research on professional or elite sports tell us about youth sports?

Sam Sommers: So much interesting science out there on youth sports - that’s something I’ve learned through all the research for our book and podcast. For example, we came across this really interesting research by a guy named Matthew Bowers at the University of Texas, who has looked into the link between youth sports participation and creativity. It’s an important question, right? We celebrate the creative artists out there on the field, court, or ice - the Lionel Messi's who make things happen that no one else can; the point guards who see the floor in a way no one else does. But so much of our youth sports instruction focuses on skill development, learning rules and set plays, and so forth. There seems like a potential tension there, and there’s an understandable mindset to believe that you need the fundamentals before you can really start riffing and ad-libbing. Bowers’s work is interesting in that it shows that the links between creativity and youth sports are more complicated than you’d think. In one study, the more structured youth sports someone had played, the less creative they tend to be later on. It seems as if some of the structure of youth sports can, at least potentially, come at the expense of potential creativity - that a lot of the positive effects we hope for in terms of creative outcomes (on and off the field) are even better facilitated by informal play, pickup ball, etc. Of course, this is also something that those of us who coach youth sports can try to capitalize on as well, giving our players the chance for unstructured play, making drills fun in unusual ways, etc.

MB: I’m prone to provocative statements like this: Positive coaching is better than abusive coaching from both a child development and an athletic performance perspective. Is there any evidence to back me up?

SS: Absolutely. Obviously, many of us cringe when we hear coaches (or parents, or players themselves) using language that demeans kids or makes the experience of youth sports something other than what it should be. Of course, we’re worried that negative and even abusive coaching will take the joy out of the game or even drive kids from the sport. But it goes beyond that: performance is negatively impacted as well. Negative moods have been found to narrow our cognitive focus - negative emotion grabs our attention and gets us to focus on a threatening stimulus. But that’s not really want we want, say, our players to be doing on the field or court or ice. There are studies that show that negative emotions literally make us see less in our visual field. It’s positive mood that broadens visuospatial attention, that can help the quarterback see out of the corner of his eye that the safety bit on the play fake or help the basketball player see that her teammate is open across court on the fast break. So positive coaching isn’t just about setting the right tone and keeping kids engaged - it’s also about fostering performance.

MB: One of the current challenges in youth sports is that too many kids are dropping out - particularly when they reach middle school. At Up2Us Sports, we believe that coaches can play a role in keeping them on the field by promoting a positive team culture. Can we use high fives as a way to measure this?

SS: Team culture and chemistry are such important concepts, but they’re elusive. Tough to measure, and tough to hold on to - there one minute and gone the next it seems sometimes. There is, indeed, this really interesting research finding that one proxy or indicator of chemistry is physical contact between players. High fives. Fist bumps. A variety of pats, hugs, and handshakes. We just did a podcast episode with a professor from Yale, Michael Kraus, who talked about a study in which his research team watched dozens of NBA games and counted up this sort of physical contact between teammates. What they found is that winning teams do more of it. Now can we say that more high fives cause more winning? No, we can’t - it could be that winning teams feel better about each other, and winning leads to more contact. But either way, the degree to which your players have this sort of contact is a good predictor of winning and seems to be a good proxy for chemistry. You see your players sitting far apart from each other on the bench, not helping each other up after they dive for a loose ball…these may be red flags that all is not going well on the team morale and chemistry fronts.

MB: I was particularly interested in your podcast on ritual in sports. Can you share why you think it’s important for coaches to integrate ritual, routine, and traditions into the sports environment?

SS: Players and fans love rituals. The pre-free-throw ritual can help the basketball player calm down and rely on her learned mechanics; same with the pitcher before stepping onto the rubber or the hitter before an at-bat. And fans love rituals as well. They’re bonding experiences, whether it’s a certain cheer, a certain song sung at a particular point in the game, etc. Rituals play an important role in a variety of organizations and, of course, religions. They play a similar role in sports, serving as the glue that can hold players together as a team or spectators together as a fan base. For both of my daughters, I think the different softball cheers they picked up on and then did (over and over and over again, to the point where I couldn’t get them out of my head) with their teammates during games were a huge draw to them when they first got into the sport. Now they’re older and you hear a lot less of all that. But the shared experience is a bonding experience, and that can be important for players as well as spectators.

MB: You’ve talked about one topic that I think directly relates to the work we do to prepare coaches to work with kids who have experienced overwhelming stress or trauma: hotheadedness. Why do you think it’s important for coaches, particularly coaches of kids with a lot of stress in their lives, to understand what happens to the brain when the stakes are high?

SS: We are different people in high- vs. low-stakes situations. We make different decisions when we’re physiologically aroused vs. level-headed. It’s important to realize how stress can undermine performance - to prepare your players to handle it ahead of time, but also to diffuse it when you see it happening. My favorite story: my 4th/5th grade girls softball team was in the title game last spring. We’re up two runs in the last inning, but the other team has runners on base. The girls look visibly nervous. I go out to the mound for a visit and bring the entire infield in for a chat. It's clear they don’t need a pep talk; it's obvious that they are, if anything, too focused on the situation. So I scrap any plans to go all Knute Rockne or Norman Dale on them, and instead just try a question. I asked them what flavor ice cream everyone was going to get when we went out to celebrate after getting the last two outs. Slowly, a smile or two creep in, followed by a cavalcade of ice cream flavor pronouncements…who knows if it worked. We did win the game. But it seemed worth a shot, and it was important, I think, to understand that this wasn’t a time when they needed a shot in the arm - they needed to lighten the mood a bit. And, of course, not he notion of hotheadedness, we’ve all seen what can happen when the adults - coaches, parents, even referees - get too carried away by the arousal of competition, so there’s another domain in which these issues are important, though that’s probably an entire blog post (or several) to address those issues completely...

This is Your Brain on Sports will be released on February 2, 2016. Visit brainonsports.com to purchase your copy today.


Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, where he was Professor of the Year in 2009. His research examines group diversity, interracial interaction, and the intersection of psychology and law. His first book was Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. But the most impressive line on his CV may be coaching two Little League softball teams to town championships on the same night. (Go Rockies. Go Giants.)