THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SPORTS: The Science of Underdogs, The Value of Rivalry, And What We Can Learn From The T-Shirt Cannon. By L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers. Crown Archetype. 279 pages. $26.
Sports perception meshes with reality somewhere between our ears, and now we have a 279-page neuroscience tool to help makes sense of all the zany connections.
We already know giving every Little League kid a trophy is a “lousy idea,” that the best players make awful coaches and that fans get as much joy from watching their arch-rival lose as from watching their favorite team win. But what this research lacks in establishing new theory tied to our pastimes, it makes up for in explanations grounded in psycho-data packaged in a fun read sprinkled with good humor.
Of course, all quarterbacks, like top corporate executives, are more handsome than most men, right? Wertheim and Sommers trace football’s contribution in the looks/leadership continuum to Walter Camp’s definition of the position way back in 1880: “Aforementioned quarter-back must be the most physically attractive member of the team, if not the entire school community. He shall possess a square jaw, piercing eyes, flawless and flowing hair — be a dreamboat, if you will.”
A few “Brain on Sports” theories: The best-looking kids get picked to play quarterback early on, and everyone else is trained to believe quarterbacks are good looking. Never mind that the authors conducted a web study asking people to rate the attractiveness of football players without knowing what position they played, and that quarterbacks placed behind receivers and linebackers.
Yet we assume quarterbacks are prettier people and, as University of Toronto psychologist Nick Rule says, “What we’ve seen is that people who lead companies that are more successful actually look like they’re better leaders.”
Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that a study of current NFL quarterbacks comparing leadership qualities with on-field results spit out one outlier — Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel — and four perceived hunks: Matt Ryan, Alex Smith, Tom Brady and Carson Palmer. Which led Wertheim and Sommers to conclude, “quarterbacks with a more leaderlike appearance also exhibited superior on-field performance.”
Wertheim is an executive editor at Sports Illustrated, and Sommers an experimental psychologist at Tufts University.
Here, they tackle topics ranging from the boardroom (“Why Running On a Treadmill Is Like Running a Business”) to the bedroom (“Why Athletics Don’t Need an Empty Bed Before Competition”).
They go deep in the chapter, “Why Hockey Goons Would Rather Fight at Home,” comparing the brain circuitry and testosterone in hockey players to studies of territorial lab mice who consistently fare better in fights within their home cage.
A bit scary, perhaps, to think our brains on sports and a mouse brain aren’t that much different. But not that surprising.
Reviewer Gene Sapakoff is a Post and Courier sports columnist.