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Why do we value sports so much?

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Listen to personal dramas four times each week. With new questions answered every podcast, and an occasional short interview, this is The Rational Basis of Happiness® radio show hosted by Dr. Ellen Kenner, a private practice clinical psychologist. She will take your calls and questions on any personal issue! Call anytime, toll free 877-Dr-Kenner or visit www.drkenner.com

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Why do we value sports so much?
(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)
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Dr. Kenner: What is so important about sports? What is so important about whether it’s swimming or being on a baseball team or a soccer team or enjoying dance? Why do we value sports so much? With me today, it is my pleasure to have Dr. Judy VanRaalte. She’s a psychology professor at Springfield College in Massachusetts. She’s worked with elite and professional athletes and youth sports athletes – that’s kids – in the United States and around the world. She has written four books and presented at conferences in 11 countries. She is a certified consultant and is listed on the United States Olympic Committee sports psychology registry. Welcome Judy.

Dr. VanRaalte: Thank you.

Dr. Kenner: Why are sports so important in our lives?

Dr. VanRaalte: It’s an interesting question. I think there are a lot of reasons why people really enjoy sports, and the first one we know from research with kids is sports are just fun. But, sports are also challenging. So, when we participate in sports, we learn, we grow, we gain skill. Sports are interesting and exciting, so we have sports heroes that are our superstars. There are lots of reasons.

Dr. Kenner: You know, I think back when I’m thinking of sports, I think of, well, my husband and I enjoy dance, but you think about to your childhood and you remember being on a team, and I can remember being the low man on a team, but you might have been on a swim team or a tennis team or a basketball team and you recall such strong emotions. Really strong emotions. The day your team finally won, and you helped them do it! Or the day your team finally lost and you helped them lose. Can you explain, what is it about sports that makes it so important in our life? It gives us the highs and the lows and we’re even fascinated as spectators?

Dr. VanRaalte: Well, it’s an interesting question to consider why we’re so involved and I think there’s a whole lot of reasons. You describe being involved in the activity and really remembering it, because we tend to remember and love the things we do, so when you think of a classroom and a teacher sitting with a chalkboard – which doesn’t really exist anymore, of course it’s digital technology – but watching someone else do things, it was a lot less interesting than doing it yourself. So, you get involved in sport. You get better. Even if you’re, I guess I would say, the lowest jumper on the skating rink or the slowest runner on the field, and it’s empowering to improve and do things with friends and continuously learn. All of that is part of what makes it great and as fans, we connect to our teams. But there’s a downside too. I think you can recall some sports teams where, for some people, sports builds character, but for other people, there’s those folks where sports builds character disorders.

Dr. Kenner: Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me about that.

Dr. VanRaalte: Well, I guess as a sports psychology consultant, I’m called in to work with individual athletes on problems they might have, could be coming back from an injury, could be getting stuck improving, where they had been improving before, but I also work with coaches and with groups where they’re trying to perform better and, again, for some people, sport brings out their best and for other people, not so much.

Dr. Kenner: So for some people, it brings out that wonderful ability to value another person, to communicate better, to really do the teamwork. I was watching an episode a while ago, Dancing with the Stars, and the pros were having some difficulty with one another, organizing one routine, and a football guy came in and said, “I’m familiar with team building. I know how to do it. I can do it.” And he helped them through that moment. So for him, it was character building, but for other people, as you said, it can be character disorder building. Do you have an example of one of somebody who just, maybe someone we’d all know about, who just has a character disorder, if you’re at liberty to say it?

Dr. VanRaalte: Oh, I am so not at liberty to say! I’m not naming names. When I work with teams and athletes, the work that we do is confidential. That’s important, because sometimes the things that make people great athletes, like leadership skills and hard work and willing to go above and beyond what normally the human body can do, are great for sport performance. And other times, those skills might lead to overly aggressive play and physical injury and doing things that the rest of society might not think are acceptable. And figuring out exactly where that line is, it can be a tricky thing. A good sports psychologist can work with athletes in a private setting to reach their goals and to perform better, and the athlete can know that what they have to say, what they’re trying, thinking and feeling is safe.

Dr. Kenner: So as a sports psychologist, you do lots of different work with lots of different people. What would be one of your more interesting – I know you can’t give names – but experiences as a sports psychologist? Maybe working with Olympic teams or maybe it would be a youth team?

Dr. VanRaalte: You’re right, I’m not naming names. But I can tell you that one of the most typical things that happens is we find that athletes who get stuck, I guess that’s what I would say, have a problem or a challenge, usually have that problem happen because they’re trying to solve one problem and another problem gets created. So, for example, your team-building football player. Maybe one of the ways a college football team builds group cohesion is to all go out together after the game, and the guys have fun together and sometimes that leads to drinking and other kinds of behavior. So they’re trying to solve one problem – which is, after all that emotional energy and hard work and sometimes even after losing a game, how do they still stay connected? And the solution might be to go spend time together, but if that involves excessive drinking and maybe some iffy choices, then solving one problem –

Dr. Kenner: Creates another.

Dr. VanRaalte: May create another problem.

Dr. Kenner: And with me today, this is Dr. Judy VanRaalte. She’s a sports psychologist and she’s a certified consultant and is listed on the United States Olympic Committee sports psychology registry. If people want to get in touch with you, do you have a website or books you can recommend?

Dr. VanRaalte: Sure. They can contact me through our website, our company is Virtual Brands, and the website is www.VBvideo.com.

Dr. Kenner: Okay, and if somebody wanted a sports psychologist, where would they go?

Dr. VanRaalte: If they’re located in or new Massachusetts, they can contact me through VBvideo.com. Also, the Association for Applied Sports Psychology has a website with a consultant finder, where you can locate sports psychology consultants in your area, and their website is www.appliedsportpsych.org.

Dr. Kenner: Thank you so much for joining us today Judy.

Dr. VanRaalte: Delighted to be here.

Dr. Kenner: I’m Dr. Ellen Kenner. See you next week on The Rational Basis of Happiness.