We all indulge in sports, some actively and some passively through our TVs and smart devices. While growing up, all children are encouraged to play sports, not only for the exercise but also to instill values of team spirit, honesty, fair play and ability to develop resilience towards untoward situations.
It is probably because of this that we still consider/expect sports to be a clean, fun activity and expect high ethical standards from sportspersons! Divya Kanchibotla, the director of Sri Sri Institute of Advanced Research and an international meditation teacher, explains the psychology behind why sportsmen cheat and what is the way out, apart from policy driven initiatives.
Of course, recent years have seen ethical transgressions of all sorts in sports come to light: including match-fixing and systematic doping at an individual and team level. At the least, they are an indication that sportsmen are human and might resort to cheating.
But what's the psychology behind it all?
1. When Winning is everything: Sometimes prizes, money or fame can cause people to make bad decisions. Winning at any cost and against others happens when we measure our success compared to others. Schurr and Ritov, in a study, found that when people’s success is measured relatively, i.e, how successful you are in comparison to others, you tend to cheat and want to remain a winner, as opposed to when your success is measured on an absolute scale. Perhaps this is what kept Lance Armstrong doping to win Tour de France, year after year, or other athletes to take shortcuts in Marathons and other races.
2. Pressure from coaches, parents or themselves to be the best: Sportsmen have tremendous pressure from their coaches and themselves to be the best. This creates tremendous anxiety and stress. This stress can actually lead to a reduction in performance, when the athletes need it the most. Lack of healthy ways to manage this pressure lead athletes to resort to drugs.
3. Overcome pain or a shortcoming: Whether it's an injury or fatigue, athletes use doping or cheating as a way of leveling the playing field. Some athletes use drugs to overcome an injury, or the pain in their bodies.
4. Poor risk-reward ratio: Our brain is wired to look for immediate gratification, with not too much worry about long-term consequences. Poor risk of getting caught and lack of strong punishment for doping can create a scenario which justifies cheating. One theory suggests that humans are wired to seek maximum rewards and status for minimal costs. Hence, we cheat. Many animal species benefit from deception - we all know what the cuckoo does with her eggs which mimic colors of eggs of other species. Or the Venus flytrap that sucks its prey in with a promise of sweet nectar. When the stakes are so high - money, and reputation, the incentive to cheat is even higher.
5. Lack of awareness: Science shows that lack of self-awareness has a connect with unethical decision making. According to Lawrence Kohlberg, a psychologist, the more evolved we are in his 6 stage moral development model, the less likely we are to cheat. Cheating, he says is the result of a lack of moral fortitude and education.
6. How Can Meditation Help?
When the pressure to perform and succeed is high, lack of ethical decisions can happen. A study at Wharton School of Management showed that practicing meditation (mindfulness) helps make ethical decisions. Another study at Northeastern University showed that Meditation increases compassion and empathy almost three folds.
Meditation makes us more self-aware that helps us make better decisions. Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), is the area of the brain involved in higher cognition and ethical decision making. Meditation gives us greater access to that area. When we feel under pressure or stressed we typically end up using only the limbic system in the brain and not the PFC, hence our decisions can be shortsighted and targeted towards immediate gratification only.
Sportsmen need to practice Meditation, not only to develop mental resilience but also help with keeping the body fit and reduce pain. The practice of breathing and meditation is linked to a healthy body and improved pain management.
The practice of Meditation allows one to be more aware of what's good for them, not just in this moment but in long-term as well. When the rewards are so great and the risk so low (at least at that moment), a strong moral compass is required to do the ethical thing. Greater self-awareness can help with that
Given the resilience and stamina (both physical and mental) required by a sportsman, they need a technique to give them enormous mental fortitude and meditation can certainly help with that.