Common Bond

As a forensic psychologist, I have yet to meet a client who enjoys being addicted to drugs or any negative compulsive desire. The same could be said for an athlete as it pertains to losing. In the same notion I have also never met a true competitive athlete that ever said. “I love the way losing makes me feel.”

As I correlate the champion athlete to the drug addict bear with me as I take the “long way” to make my point.

The first question most have as it pertains to drug addicts and their addiction “de jour” goes something like, “Why would anyone continue to use mind altering drugs despite the medical and social consequences or even a premature death?” (As an added point I hear “Go to Rehab!” Sounds good but Rehab is the one of the biggest scams going (in addition to college and sports) as these centers and “experts” are frauds that can’t do anything to change the addict. Yes, they can provide a “safe space” but for the thousands they charge the addict would be better off going to the Four Seasons and locking themselves in their room since it will only take 2-4 days of solitary confinement to rewire the brain. This choice would save the client thousands while being in a much nicer place with 5-star services. Yes, it is hell for 2-4 days dealing with the withdrawal but what’s the alternative? Losing everything and everyone close to the person and quite possibly their freedom and ultimately one’s life? Should be an easy choice but to those under the drug’s spell it never is).

No one will be shocked to learn that stress makes people more likely to search for solace in their “drug de jour”, yet the myth has persisted that addiction is either a moral failure or heredity induced behavior; that addicts are either completely in charge or literally just plain “crazy.” Now we have extensive amounts of scientific research that makes the connection between stress and addiction definitive. More surprising, it shows that we can change the path to addiction by “rebooting” our brain’s by simply changing our environment (Remember this for latter reading).

Since we as humans are a “Pleasure Principal” creature we are always in pursuit of finding ways not necessarily to obtain pleasures (though this is a motivating force within us all but I would make the claim it is more to avoid pain). Many neuroscientists have taken this human characteristic and have discovered that our addictions are developed by a source which brings us the most pleasure or clearest path in the avoidance of pain. This euphoric feeling induced by one’s drug of choice has a common target in the “reward circuit” of the brain, and that the brains of humans undergo biological changes that can make them susceptible to addiction. Why? The answer is simple.

All rewards from sex, food, money, drugs, gambling, shopping sprees, victory etc. will cause a release “pleasure chemicals,” which conveys a sense of pleasure and tells the brain, “This is what life is all about so don’t forget what it takes to obtain this feeling!” This reward circuit evolved over time to help us recognize how to surround ourselves within an environment that can readily provide our guilty “fix.”

CHEMICALS

In the beginning and before any copious event that captures our favor one has more D2 receptors within the canals of our brains thus the higher the persons natural level of stimulation and pleasure is and the less likely they are to seek out the unconventional forms (drug) of daily pleasures over the normal “fuel” from family, work, friends, etc. to compensate. But after time these receptors become more and are resistant to the same simulation and one needs more to obtain the similar result as before. Here is where we now get into trouble and experience the letdown of the previously natural “high.” You know the age old saying, “what goes up must come down.”

Now we can look into the true key to the pleasure we all want to experience. Like I stated previously this key component is directly related to the number of receptors we collectively all have swimming around within our complex brains. This number of receptors not only can correctly predict addiction; they are also affected by it. Research discovered that people addicted, for example to cocaine, heroin, alcohol and methamphetamine’s experience a significant reduction in their D2 receptor levels that persists long after drug use has stopped. These people are far less sensitive to rewards, are less motivated and may find the world dull (Warriors during regular season) making them prone to seek a chemical means to enhance their everyday life. Once can now substitute “drugs” and the resulting aforementioned “drug addiction” for their own personal action that produced this pleasure within them (“drugs” can be not only pharmaceutical but also food-sex-shopping-victory etc.)

Furthermore, this continued exposure to the individuals addiction “tools” also contributes to a loss of self-control. Research found that low D2 was linked with lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, which would impair one’s ability to think critically and exercise restraint (i.e. more discourse, frustration, irritability, petulance etc.) (ex.-player constant complaining-finger pointing-management challenging etc.).

RELATION

The same neuroscience research that contributes to drug addiction can also help us understand sports and the need for a champion to maintain their lofty pedestal. Victory, like drugs, stimulates the brain’s reward circuit. Chronic exposure to consistent winning (like drugs) is similarly linked with lower D2 levels. These athletes now with lower D2 levels still crave winning like before but now need more and more to be satisfied to the point that if they are not tested and/or threatened they get bored with the whole process (Warriors). They now don’t want to work for it as they just expect to receive it when they “need” it. It’s a vicious cycle in which more exposure begets more craving and more dissatisfaction when the ultimate prize is not readily available (ex. Legion of Boom-Seahawks). The worst situation for the winning addict is that there is no more challenge. It’s now like the long-time coffee drinker. Where once a cup got their “motor” going now that same cup just gets them to “normal.” Now more cups are needed to closely achieve the feeling they remember experiencing with one cup back when they started drinking it. Now can you start to see the viciousness of the getting caught up in this disastrous cycle in the pursuit of being emotionally fulfilled.

WARRIOR DEMISE?

History has taught us that repeating as champions is highly difficult and very rare. It can be stated that the talent of the champion didn’t decrease significantly from the previous year, so they still have the ability and capability to achieve the same goal they just recently accomplished but for some reason didn’t. Yet if we dig further within the study it can be successfully shown that the recent players from a championship team had reductions in their D2 receptors and that this reduction highly compromised their performance. The implication of this blunted reward circuit is that they find normal winning insufficiently rewarding. At the same time, when exposed to pictures of their past glory the brain somehow recognizes this and gives a surge of “pleasure chemicals” that always keeps the player trapped as they once again are reminded why they do what they do (play). This experience of intense stimulation’s tends to focus the champion to achieve the goal once again knowing the reward is so great. Here is the great deceiver and how the champion and drug addict have a symbiotic relationship since this quick burst of euphoria is only a tease since the reality is they will never feel the same “high” as they did the first time they archived the goal (championship). And now just like drug addicts, athletes with fewer D2 receptors (champions) also show decreased activity in their prefrontal cortex, making it harder to exert self-control resulting in inter team conflicts and the same activities (practice-road game at Sacramento) seem to be much more difficult than before.

Andre Iguodala who is considered a key component to Golden State’s current championship run was asked why the Warriors, composed primarily with the same team that won the championship the year before were struggling with their usual high level of play, he stated, “It’s harder because we get each team’s best game.” I find this explanation hard to believe since this statement infers that every Warrior opponent doesn’t play to their top level except when it is against them. What Iguodala doesn’t understand along with the millions of media and fans who automatically buy this ignorance is that the reason it is more difficult than before is not because of Iguodala’s belief that it is from the opponents perceived high level of play, but it is due to the lower D2 levels within the team members brains and the lack of “pleasure chemical” uptake. This chemical “imbalance” induces a lack of focus and intensity. The button within them contributes to a “auto-pilot” mentality which is subconsciously pushed to release an intrinsic effort since the player knows that even with a victory they will just be feeling “normal” (see coffee reference above) with no great euphoric reward that was so prevalent the year before which makes them question their very purpose. Do you remember how subdued the Warriors celebration was this year when they won the championship? Why? This is because the team members D2 levels were so low that even a championship wouldn’t fire the “pleasure chemical” uptake to bring the euphoria back. This led them to think but never say publicly “is his all there is?” This display (or lack thereof) from the Warriors allows me to make the determination that the Warriors reign in the NBA is coming to a screeching halt. This is not because of a lack of talent or capability to win it once again but because their brains are fried and are in desperate need of tune-up (reboot).

REHAB

At this point you may be wondering: What controls the reward circuit in the first place? Some of it is genetic. We know that certain gene variations elevate the risk of addiction to various situations. But deeper studies suggest that our environment can trump genetics and reboot the brain. The good news is that while we can’t change our genetics, we can change our environment as to keep the mind stimulated and the flow of the “pleasure chemicals” consistent. (LeBron James treks from Cleveland to Miami back to Cleveland and now on to Los Angeles is a perfect example for keeping the “fuel” streamlined).

When athletes come together to build a team unit, some become dominant and others assume a submissive role (dogs in the newly placed within animal shelter and/or pack). For those that become dominant — meaning they get more attention, more grooming and more access to the spoils of stardom — this is a positive change (James). They now have more D2 “pleasure” receptors and are less interested in manufactured “highs”. But for submissive group especially when they are not used to being placed in his role (Kyrie Irving), the group setting is a stressful change, and they respond by increasing their use of outside stimulants to cope or look for a way to escape.

Strikingly, the effect of environment is easily reversible. By allowing the player to return to a different environment that is conducive to where he feels his status is now on top their D2 “pleasure” receptors will naturally increase — and their pursuits for escape and quest for a manufactured “high” will be alleviated. In other words, simply by changing the environment, you can increase or decrease the likelihood of a player waning to leave (Irving in Boston). (I will say if Boston would have dethroned James and the Cavaliers, Irving could feel marginalized and been looking once again for an escape-Knicks?).

ALPHA DOGS/MEDIA

Until recently exceptional athletes have been mostly the “alpha” of their collective group/team and were accepted as such for a very long time without the modern affliction of widespread intra-team discourse and/or displeasure with their current team and/or teammates. What changed?

The times have changed. Unlike before where ownership held all the power concerning personnel, the elite player now controls all the power over the organization (especially within the NBA) to where if a great player wants out, the team and all its plans for glory are tossed straight into the garbage. Also, even when on a collection of superior players that combine to make a “super team” (Warriors) and finds success, eventually will come a time where they now feel entitled to their titles. Is gets to the point that their collective D2 receptors are so “fried” they openly admit that they get bored with the mundane “march to greatness,” whereas in the past the same scenarios were seen as a joyful pursuit and the unified drive which culminated in a championship. It was a seen as being more joyful, fun, and a product of hard work and team chemistry than the tedious “grind” it appears it has become.

Now add the proliferation of the media which has created mega stars that are internationally known instead of just locally/regionally and the collateral damage only gets more severe. Great players are placed above their teammates and great teams are placed above the very league itself. We now see more individualism as the player is more concerned with themselves since they are fueled by a media that needs clicks to survive and the top player(s) provides this. This fact is buttressed by the ever-eager fan which is also more concerned with their favorite player(s) than for the very team they play for itself. When this occurs the alpha team/dog marginalizes all others leaving those around them to feel animosity, jealousy and anger to the organization/league for allowing one person/team to dominate the narrative. When this happens, being the best on a team or winning it all makes everything else irrelevant. These scenarios, which lead most to coming up short in the title hunt have even good players, teams and fans view their season in a negative light and thus the high dopamine levels that they crave/need are now absent. This then leaves them to pursue different alternatives as to find the source of their main pursuit (pleasure). (Also see recent retirees and their struggle to cope when the cheering ends) How can this new reality be changed, or can it be?

Yes, it can be changed. But to accomplish this the league and more importantly the players would have to revert to the past team first mentality. So, in other words nothing will change and in fact it will only become more prevalent over time. I feel we are going to get to the point in the future where teams will not call a city their home. In my opinion the games will now take place in one “mega city” that has an infrastructure to handle it with just the name of the team on the front (Warriors-Lakers-Suns-etc.). It would take the appearance similar to that of the current NBA Summer League in Vegas where teams send their young players and perform in front of sellout crowds. Now if such an endeavor with first and second year players can consistently fill the seats in a city with no NBA team what do you think Durant-James-Westbrook-Harden would attract?

Nothing in our evolution has prepared us for the double whammy of player power and the reward center of the brain where one’s main pursuit is for themselves and not for the team, yet the elite player is still part of a team. Their power to activate our reward circuits within our collective brains and nudge us in the direction of compulsive winning to justify our desperate need to fuel the pleasure principal is unprecedented. To be the champion goes the spoils (pleasure chemicals) and to the loser the debilitating withdrawals that leave even the best wondering “what’s the point” and is the “juice is truly worth the squeeze?” (See every team with “no shot” at a title before the season starts).

At this point it is incumbent that the organizations have a secure management structure (GM) where they have the security from ownership to do the unthinkable and start the process of tearing down piece by piece of a championship team and rebuilding. I am not saying go full destruction like the 1998 Florida Marlins but by going piece by piece over time where it is more subtle than drastic can and will produce a much-desired long-term organizational sustainability. The can keep the franchise player (if he buys in) and build around him. This philosophy will give the organization a chance in sustaining a top-level club for years to come (Patriots) as the “pleasure chemical” needed for top level performance will be steady and with no real downward spikes which leads to failure.

Finally, the media may play a substantial role is this creation of “Frankenstein” as their constant clamoring for clicks forces the athlete to acknowledge what is being portrayed. Research shows that the brain responds to subliminal messages and that those in the limelight are more susceptible to such messages. The longer the “star” is in the daily “meat grinder” the more “juice” they will need. These messages are used to motivate them as they now will naturally want to please their fans or prove the doubters wrong. This is a dysfunctional marriage made in heaven as both need each other in order to “survive.” When the player doesn’t receive this affirmation, they will lash out in an immature response to any unsuspecting “victim” they feel “superior” to. (See Kevin Durant’s battle with teen over an Instagram post). When you see and/or hear about instances such as Durant’s you can rest assured the end is near.

CONCLUSION

In the end, we as humans are extremely fortunate that our brains are remarkably plastic and sensitive to experience. Although it’s far easier said than done, just limiting exposure to the limelight and easily obtained sources of the “high” would naturally reset our brains to find pleasure in healthier forms that could be consistent and sustainable when the cheering ceases to exist and the world no longer cares about the players diminished capacity. At this point if the athlete doesn’t recognize that the heights of their “pleasure chemical” fueled “high.” was then and this is a new reality they are doomed as it pertains to their current/future enjoyment in life. When that unique euphoric feeling, which they experienced the first time they tasted the championship won’t leave them even when their continued chase leaves them unfulfilled the athlete now becomes deceived into thinking that they are the “special ones” deserving of this oh so fleeting gift and that it’s just a matter of time until they will obtain it once again. Can you now begin to see how similar this approach it is to the drug addict? The best “high” is always the first one and once the drug has the unsuspecting participant in their claws it is almost impossible to get out without the ever present collateral damage ravaging them. If not recognized early and changes made by the athlete/drug addict it will cost them every dollar, friend, family member and in the end quite possibly their very life (Terrell Owens/Junior Seau).

And such the case for the title holder. The longer they are on top the more dopamine they need just to stay “normal.” This is why what the Warriors, Penguins and Patriots have accomplished is so impressive and why current champions like the Astros, Eagles, Capitals along with the grand individual sports champions such as Federer, Williams, Mickelson, Woods will have such a difficult time continuing well past their individual primes or team dynamic to pursue and obtain the euphoria that has defined their very purpose and existence in life for which only the drug addict can relate to.

As with everything in life nothing continues forever. It is the true champion (person or team) that recognizes the downward trend after their reign and can make the adjustment back to reality which will sustain them long after the glory reigns. If this isn’t accomplished the frustration, bickering, lack of excitement, lethargy and overall quest to get back the “high” they once experienced can lead to their own personal/organizational destruction. Conversely, if the athlete/team can master this natural biological process and understand that time is over and that they can still excel at a high level in their post championship era. If they now can embrace this new reality without always looking back, it is then and only then will they be forever known as legendary and the truest of all champions. Good luck with that!

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