Sports and science have often intersected over the years in memorable ways. Whether it’s a player or team hiring a therapist to overcome a mental block, a beverage being refined to maximize physical recovery, or new medical techniques to speed up healing, we as sports fans have become accustomed to getting regular science lessons as we follow our favorite clubs.
As I write this, I am watching the Derby County-Manchester United FA Cup match. I love the FA Cup because it allows me to watch matches at grounds I may not have seen before but also because I could see a smaller side spring an upset on a favorite. Being able to watch a Championship or, even better, League One or Two side take down a Premier League club is an exciting proposition, and I know I am not unique in this feeling. The FA Cup and similar competitions thrive because we get to root for the underdog and we get a rush of excitement seeing a team that by odds should not be winning.
This is Your Brain on Sports is a new book collaboration between an expert in sports and an expert on mental science. Jon Wertheim is the executive editor of Sports Illustrated while Sam Sommers is an experimental psychologist, and they seek over 250 pages to show why some commons elements of sports fandom are well, common. Take for example my scenario above. There is a chapter regarding why people seemingly root for the team less likely to win, showing the scientific and psychological reasons but then explaining why this support is actually more shallow than it seems.
The book spans all sports but the topics are for the most part universal; there is a (poorly written) chapter about why the World Cup doesn’t bring “world peace” like its organizers sometimes promise but overall each chapter deals with a scenario that would be familiar to soccer fans. Some are funny – I particularly enjoyed the chapter on whether athletes need to have an “empty bed” the night before a game. Overall though this book simply skimmed the surface of each topic without diving in too deep. This was probably an editorial decision to make the book more accessible to the masses, but what we get in most chapters is (1) common sports trope is discussed, (2) a scientific study related to it is discussed, and (3) the conclusion is drawn that sports fans are right.
Where this formula is not followed is where the book is at its best. My favorite chapter was on athletes who overcome emotional trauma to excel on the field and, even though we think such things are rare, in reality the “returning to work” phenomenon is actually a common coping mechanism for everyone, not just Brett Favre or Michael Jordan. In this case, the authors showed that a common sports assumption is actually wrong, and I think the book would have benefitted more by mixing in more of these types of studies, rather than just constantly confirming what we already know about sports.
That said, this is a good book for a birthday/holiday gift for a sports fan in your life that likes a beach-read style of books. You will read this, enjoy the few days it took, maybe use some of the facts in arguments with friends at the bar, and move on. For the authors, I suspect this would be considered a success.
This is Your Brain on Sports is available via Amazon and all fine booksellers.
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