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3Qs: Pitching in a pressure cooker

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The joys of professional sports often go hand in hand with the enormous pressure for teams and athletes to succeed — and appease their passionate fan bases. We asked Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport in Society, a Northeastern University research center at the College of Professional Studies, to explain why the pressure on professional athletes gets so intense, and whether it’s happening more frequently in youth sports as well.

Professional athletes face incredible pressure to perform at the highest level. Why is so much expected of them?

First, I’ll say that the platform of sport is unique in its ability to provide a common language for all people regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status, gender or sexual orientation. Given that extent of inclusion, it creates an environment similar to a fishbowl in which every move is scrutinized, analyzed, commended or criticized. When you live on a platform that is open for all to see, you essentially have nowhere to hide. The exuberance of fan-hood sometimes creates a hysteria that can be at times unifying, either in a positive or negative sense.

I also think the salary structure in pro sports escalates expectation, often beyond what is humanly possible. We need to remember that much of sports involves failure. In baseball for instance, a .300 batting average is considered a benchmark of excellence, yet that number, based on 10 at-bats means that the player failed seven times. If we remain mindful of that backdrop, and of carrying the weight of unrealistic expectations, perhaps we can embrace sports and athletes in a more humane fashion.

Fans obviously don’t endure this same pressure, but many certainly carry the weight of their teams’ highs and lows on their shoulders. What is it about sports that makes people so passionate?

Many times, we define much of our personal identity in our sports allegiances. This allows us to deflect many of the challenges and difficulties of our personal and professional lives into a framework of fan-hood and gives us sort of an identity outlet that we hope will be always positive. Sport is a way for us to meld our individuality with a community without the many “isms” that create division in our society. Sport is such a part of the human condition and yet, as with anything involving humanity, it comes with all the beauty, flaws, successes and failures.

The scrutiny imposed on youth sports seems like it has increased in recent years. Do you agree, and how can we strike the right balance of encouraging youth athletes’ success while ensuring an enjoyable experience for them?

There seems to be a definitive movement toward what I would call a professionalization of youth sports. When ranking services produce reports about the “best 4th grader in the nation,” we have lost our perspective about the role of sports in young peoples’ lives. This has moved the realm of youth sport from being centered largely on the joy of play to a new construct that focuses instead upon the expectation of performance. In many ways, this has created a funnel to the very extremity of fan-hood that I spoke to in the previous questions.

It seems to me that the basis of all cultural change is education, particularly leadership education that engages a conversation rather than legislates behavior. We at Sport in Society want to lead this dialogue and create a conversation about sport that includes not only its inherent competition, but also its ability to teach community, cooperation, teamwork and life skills in a logic model framework, where the outcome is about healthy human development.