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Biochemical Factors for 'Behaviour'

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Hormones  Endorphins  Basal Physiology  'Fight or Flight'  Neurotransmitters  How it all works in a 'game'


Rugby League is not a game for the 'faint-hearted' or physically compromised individual. One must physically be capable of sustaining the significant 'body contact' that occurs and have the necessary psychological 'toughness' to withstand 'on-field' pressures during the game. Naturally gifted or talented players find many of these aspects easier than others, however training and conditioning is essential for all. The effects of training and playing the game may contribute to many of the behaviours noted 'off-field' by means of physical & biological baseline status &/or changes. By no means does it provide any 'excuse' for poor behaviour; nor is it to be considered the 'sole reason' for such behaviour. It merely adds to the 'total picture'.

For the average 'person in the street', many aspects of the player's life are difficult to understand. Whether it is their profile, lifestyle, financial worth, level of adoration or relative 'fame' and so on. It is difficult to relate to in the context of everyday 'normal' existence.

Most tend to have an idealized opinion of the player, tend to live vicariously through them, fantasize about living their life &/or playing their sport. Even if not a 'fan', most people have at the very least a perception of the 'stereotypical' Rugby League player (both good & bad; positive or negative).

Fans experience the excitement of the game; 'basking in the reflected glory of the team's acheivements'. As 'thrilling' as it is to be on the 'outside looking in', it compares little to the actual participation in the game, as a player.

Many of the biochemical effects within a player's mind & body apply to factors that the majority of individuals rarely, if ever, experience. What is it like to play a game of a 'high energy', 'physically demanding', 'body contact' nature? What effect does the emotive, vocal crowd responses have on the player? What is it like to run onto a ground or stadium with people applauding, 'booing', cheering & chanting; be it a small local ground or large stadium? What mental & physical preparation has taken place during regular training and immediately prior to 'game-time'?

The mind & body prepares for the contest in a 'biochemical' manner; using its' own hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain & nerve pathways. It will also continue to use these during the game; at different times and in different amounts. It enables the player to perform as is required, and when required.

These 'biochemical' agents (hormones & neurotransmitters) exist in all of us, not just the Rugby League player. All are essential elements of life. It's when you combine those necessary for successful participation in a sport like league that one can see the problems that might occur when engaged or applied 'off-field'.

Six (6) major biochemical facts apply to the Rugby League player and the effects these might have upon 'behaviour'; and more specifically how these might be manifested 'off-field'.

Hormones

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·         Testosterone is a steroidal hormone with effects that are both anabolic (causing growth in muscle mass & strength, increased bone density & strength and bone growth maturation), and androgenic (primary ‘male’ sex characteristics & secondary sex characteristics such as ‘deepening voice’, ‘facial & body hair’ etc.). Testosterone is also present in both males & females, as is oestrogen (the more familiar ‘female’ hormone). Both are necessary, in the appropriate quantities, for bodily ‘stability’. Testosterone is released in ’spurts’ under a variety of circumstances & with different types of stimuli. It is particularly evident in the ‘pre-contest’ stage where the anticipatory excitation & preparation causes a rise in levels. Whether it is linked to ‘aggression’, remains a point of conjecture, though anecdotally the evidence seems quite sound. A study in 1994, during the ‘Soccer World Cup’, indicated an increase in Testosterone levels of 28% in Brazilian fans whose side was winning and a 27% decrease in Italian fans whose side was losing. If this occurs within those who are merely watching the game, what then can occur to those participants of the sport? It is clear that testosterone plays a part in male dominance and certainly contributes to behaviour that is of a more ‘primal’ and ‘instinctual’ nature. If testosterone driven ‘aggression’ is accurate and is developed during training & levels further elevated before & during the game, it is likely the body becomes adjusted accordingly; giving rise to the possibility of this aggression & dominance being projected or exhibited ‘off-field’. Levels of testosterone certainly rise in an anticipatory manner prior to competition and it has been noted that ‘winning’ can elevate levels, whilst ‘losing’ can result in a decrease. The variances associated with testosterone before, during & following sporting contests and in situations involving aggression, antisocial behaviours etc. , whilst the subject of much conjecture & debate, give cause for the consideration, at least, to their relevance in overall societal effect and manifested behaviours.



Endorphins

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·     The effects of Endorphins are of significant relevance. During exercise, particularly strenuous training, endorphins are released. They have several actions, not least of which, is the feeling of ‘brighter mood’ or ‘euphoria’.  Their primary function, however, is that of subduing or limiting ‘pain’. They are the body’s morphine. Images of players with injury continuing to play and perform during a game or having wounds stapled or stitched without any, or minimal, analgaesia has always amazed me. Most observers grimace each time, though they continue on, without so much as ‘blinking an eye’. Much of the reason for this can be attributed to Endorphins and the effect they have on pain. The player needs this capacity in order to maintain participation in the ‘battle on the field’. The problem that arises is the ‘euphoric’ effect associated. Why do people use & become addicted to morphine, heroin, opium etc.? They too are designed primarily for pain relief. The answer is the ‘feel good’ factor, even if only a brief ‘rush’.  Those who engage in ‘extreme sports’ can attest to the addictive nature of this ‘natural high’. This also applies to ‘gym junkies’, ‘endurance athletes’ and therefore highly likely to ‘rugby league players’.   

 



Basal Physiology

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·      This refers to the ‘basic & fundamental’ genetic/physiological makeup of a human being. Underlying characteristics of an individual’s biochemical structure provides many clues as to possible ultimate behaviour, though also raises questions as to how, when and from where this may have developed or been predetermined. Just as is the case with various physical disorders & highly likely with many mental health conditions, there is ample evidence to suggest a genetic &/or physiological predisposition. If indeed an individual is genetically programmed for sporting excellence, then the outcome will generally substantiate this. To take this predisposition a little further, one might postulate the notion that basic underlying biochemical factors are also linked to success in a given sport. The qualities required of the Rugby League player are somewhat different to those of a golfer or one involved in ‘non-contact’ sports. These very essential requirements can include higher ‘baseline’ levels of hormones & neurotransmitters in areas relating to ‘aggression’, ‘dominance’, ‘pain threshold’, ‘pain tolerance’, ‘reactivity to stimuli of a threatening nature’, ‘instinctive behaviours’ etc. Having said this, one must always bear in mind that, as with developmental processes, role modeling & significant life events, the outcome can never be predicted with any certainty, nor does it mean the individual does not have control over their behaviour. Another pertinent aspect to ‘basal physiology’ or its development is the repetitive nature of certain behaviour. In a body contact sport, the repetition of confrontation & ‘controlled’ physical aggression reinforces those neuronal pathways that enable continuation & improvement in performance. This is easily seen and demonstrated in ‘skills training’ and even in activities such as playing the piano or similar instrument. The adage ‘practice makes perfect’ is a layman’s way of explaining the ‘training’ & reinforcement’ of those nerve pathways, & the neurotransmitters involved, and the enabling of a kind of ‘second nature’, ‘seemingly instinctual’ execution of the activity, behaviour or skill.



'Fight or Flight'

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·      Each individual has ‘built in’ physiological mechanisms for the ‘fight or flight’ response, as do other living organisms. The essence of ‘fight or flight’ is the body’s instinctive preparation to that which is perceived as threatening or harmful; that which engenders fear &/or high levels of anxiety, stress etc. The body prepares for one of two (2) decisions; either fleeing the situation (running away) or standing & fighting. The physical changes that occur apply to both, enabling either to be adopted. In days past, the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism was for simple survival. Our physiology has not changed, but society and culture most certainly has. Anxiety, stress, conflict (personal, vocational & social), extreme sports, body contact sports, and I would suggest most contests within the sporting arena, all elicit a physical ‘fight or flight’ response. As with ‘Endorphins’ & ‘Hormones’, situations such as those mentioned provide, or necessitate, the body’s preparation for the ‘modern day battlefields’. The initial triggers for the body’s response to a ‘fight or flight’ initiated stimulus involves ‘epinephrine’, ‘norepinephrine’ & ‘acetylcholine’. The manifested features are: 

 

 

1.       Increased heart rate, blood pressure & lung action

2.       Constriction of peripheral blood vessels, allowing more blood flow,

         oxygen, nutrients etc. to those areas where it is required

3.       Dilation of blood vessels for the muscles, allowing for increased nutrients &

         oxygen

4.       Muscles become ‘tightened’ & ‘tensed’

5.       Smooth muscles relax, allowing more oxygen into the lungs

6.       An increase in blood-glucose level, therefore more energy available

7.       Dilation of the pupils, resulting in greater light into the eyes and increased

         perception

8.       The brain becomes focused on the immediate ‘task at hand’ or ‘threat’ or

         ‘challenge’ or ‘battle’

9.       Non-vital or essential bodily systems, such as the immune system, digestive

         system etc. are slowed or temporarily ‘shut down’ in order to allow more

         energy for the ‘fight or flight’ ahead

 

In essence, the body’s vital ‘performance capacity’ speeds up and becomes increasingly alert. The alternative ‘flight’ response would relate to the player leaving the locker room (sweating, with bowel & bladder problems, nausea & fear), hopping in his car & driving home as swiftly as possible; hardly the appropriate choice or desired behaviour expected from the coach, club &/or team. A perfect example of this ‘pre-match’ readiness was demonstrated by the ‘former’ Western Suburbs ‘magpies’, under the guidance of Roy Masters. The televised image of Tommy Raudonikis and teammates ‘slapping’ each other around, and getting a little ‘carried away’ at times, is the quintessential Rugby League ‘battle preparation’. They are basically physically ‘fired up’ and ready to perform; no ‘flight’ choice or response; simply ‘fight’ (definitively confrontational).

 



Neurotransmitters

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·      Dopamine, Serotonin, Norepinephrine (Noradrenaline), Epinephrine (Adrenaline) etc. are but some of those neurotransmitters responsible for, and linked to, ‘mood’, ‘emotions’, ’behaviour’, ‘sex drive’, ‘cognitive functioning’ (thinking) and a variety of ‘feel good’ sensations. Dopamine is particularly linked to these ‘feel good’ sensations; so much so that the individual will often passionately & fervently seek out the sources that provide these feelings. Why is sex so enjoyable (not merely for procreation purposes); why is laughter, exercise, consuming food (not merely for nutritional needs) & the tastes associated so pleasing? It relates to the release of those neurotransmitters that provide the corresponding feelings. Norepinephrine & epinephrine, being biochemically linked or associated with Dopamine similarly provide positive, enjoyable feelings. Certain illicit drugs provide the release of these neurotransmitters and result in the continuation of use and ultimate dependence, primarily because of how it makes the individual ‘feel’. What begins as a seeking of pleasurable experiences eventually develops into physical addiction due to actual neurological changes. Endorphins also provide euphoric sensations, as noted previously. Serotonin, being intrinsically involved in emotions & mood, is also seen to be involved in aggression & dominance. Interestingly enough, most antidepressants have the effect of raising the level of Serotonin in the synaptic clefts, thus elevating mood. Research has indicated that increased serotonergic activity within the brain can be associated with reduced manifested aggression & some symptoms of depression can be ‘irritability’, ‘hostility’ & ‘aggression’. Whilst not a definitive scientific fact, it has also been noted that when levels of Serotonin are higher, Dopamine is lower, and vice versa; an interesting observation that may give rise to further study.         



Reward Pathways

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·      In every individual lie neuronal (nerve) pathways that send information around the brain and body. There are many names & terms for the various pathways, though in this instance information is restricted to only that which relates to ‘reward pathways’. These are basically those pathways whose feedback is interpreted by the individual as ‘positive’, ‘feel good’, ‘enhancing’ and ‘rewarding’. In simple terms, these pathways are those that stimulate behaviour & actions that will elicit a reward or positive feeling. It forms the basis for observable behaviours through continual reinforcement and desire for the ‘feel good’ experience. In the Rugby League player, these pathways are reinforced by many of the ‘key’ elements previously mentioned; particularly ‘feelgood neurotransmitters’.Unconsciously (and at times consciously), the individual seeks a continuation of this experience as any person would. The ‘socially acceptable’ reward pathways within the individual will not generally be highlighted in any negative way; they’re basically considered ‘normal’ and ‘uninteresting’ to anyone but the person experiencing the ‘reward’. If however, your reward pathway results in behaviour contrary to basic social standards, values & expectations, then most will sit up & pay attention. This may be one of the reasons why the recidivists of the league continue their behaviours. Examples of unacceptable reward pathways may be unwarranted, spontaneous aggression & violence, antisocial behaviour & crime, casual sexual conquests, partaking of illicit drugs, excessive imbibing of alcoholic beverages. The latter two (2) behaviours provide a ‘snowballing’ or ‘domino’  effect; serving only to reduce inhibitions and elicit added stimulus for other socially inappropriate activities.



 

Picture this.........................Audio    Unavailable at this time

 

It’s Grand Final day. The players have all trained consistently and strenuously toward their goal of reaching the final; now is the culmination of all their effort. The coach & training staff have them prepared physically and psychologically for the game ahead. They’re focused, determined and as fit as they can be. Most have played since their junior days and their skills and abilities have been honed and perfected.

 

They sit quietly in the dressing room. Each has their own method of ‘pre-match’ preparation mentally. The physiotherapists & conditioners perform their tasks in preparing the players for the rigours ahead of them. The coach addresses each player individually and as a collective; with final instructions & positive encouragement.

 

You can hear the crowd outside in the stadium; somewhat as a constant ‘hum’; the excitement is building. The ground announcer incites more vocal responses from those in the packed stands. The time is drawing nigh, to when they will enter the cauldron to begin the battle with their opponents.

 

 

Biochemically & physiologically, the body, being already developed & structured for the needs of the sport, begins to exert the necessary changes in hormones, neurotransmitters & chemicals. Testosterone levels rise, the ‘flight or fight’ response begins to ‘kick in’ and dopamine & norepinephrine are released in greater quantities. The player senses the physical changes; increased heart rate and ‘pounding chest’, increased respirations, heightened senses, slight tension sensations in major muscles and so on. 

 

 

Then the moment arrives; they line up & head out the tunnel onto the field. The crowd erupts, both applauding and ‘booing’. The ground announcer increases the spectator’s fervor; the cameras & media are only too obvious and the players are very well aware of the televised media coverage of the event.

 

Their opposition arrives with the same intensity afforded by the fans. They too are similarly prepared for the ensuing battle.

 

 

At this point in time, the effect of Endorphins begins; secondary to the excitement and the anticipatory 80 minutes of extreme physical effort and body contact. There is a continuation of testosterone ‘spurts’ and neurotransmitter release. 

 

 

Kick off; the game begins and the ball is given to the front-rower who bludgeons his way forward with scant regard for his safety and with the intent of making his presence felt on the opposition defenders. The Grand Final is underway and the vigorous contact and physicality of the sport will continue for at least 80 minutes.

 

 

Periodically throughout the game, the body’s Biochemical status will undergo frequent changes. Exhaustion and fatigue can temporarily deplete the necessary resources. Similarly, periods of intense effort may raise certain chemicals, hormones etc. Recovery may be required during the game, by means of self imposed rest, strategic measures such as scrums, line finding, transition from defence to attack, isolating movements to a particular area of the field or even specific ‘fresher’ players. Some may need to be interchanged in order to‘re-charge’ their physical capacity to continue. The variances in levels of chemicals will exist for the entirety of the game; however it is far from an onerous activity. Not only are the players willingly competing with such intensity, they are actually experiencing the complete euphoria associated, having had their ‘reward pathways’ stimulated and satisfied, endorphins released in high levels, testosterone dominance and aggression met and the release of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters. 

 

 

Upon completion of the game, there is a winner and of course a loser. Winning will continue euphoric effects with associated hormonal release, though losing the game, while mentally & biochemically a ‘let-down’ also provides a degree of physical satisfaction, given the effort and stimulus effects during the game itself.

 

This is appropriate and expected in a contest of such high energy and physicality. One can easily appreciate how a player can continue to participate year after year. The addictive nature of the sport can largely be attributed to the various biochemical effects on the player.



The other pertinent aspect of the sport is the peripheral effect on ‘reward pathways’ & the pleasure centres’ in the brain. Most people like to feel good. If something pleases them, they sometimes wish it would never end. It is evidenced particularly in children and therefore somewhat entrenched or established in our very early years. As such, it remains, albeit generally unconsciously and restrained by our developmental maturation.

 

Take these factors above and imagine for a moment that the intense pleasure and ‘rush’ of an activity such as Rugby League can be extended beyond the playing arena. In a purely physical sense, the brain and the player’s mind desires a continuation of the pleasures experienced. The progression of this need lends itself to many of the excesses seen ‘off-field’. If you then add in the social re-enforcement that often accompanies players and teams, it is easy to see why restraint, self control & discipline can be forsaken, even by the most noble of players.

 

Alcohol & drugs, sexual conquests and ‘pre-programmed’, confrontational responsive aggression can satisfy these ‘reward pathways’ & ‘pleasure centres’. Many of the biochemical factors evidenced during training & the game can, to some extent, be duplicated by means of these. The unfortunate aspect is the socially negative and inappropriate nature involved and the damaging consequences.

 

There are not too many players who, after a game and when interviewed, state their intention to pack up their gear, head home and have a quiet cup of tea with their wife before retiring early in order to mow the lawn the next day; particularly if they have been involved in a ‘win’. Most will no doubt either celebrate or ‘drown their sorrows’ with their mates.

 

By understanding and accepting the nature of the sport; the ‘naturally occurring’ biochemical and physical effects and the sub-culture that exists (and always existed), players, coaches, administrators and others associated with the game might better appreciate the temptations and reasons for some of the manifested behaviours well publicized and viewed as completely unacceptable.

 

By no means is it suggested that these behaviours are acceptable, however, it helps to explain how they might occur and therefore enable those governing the sport or overseeing the teams & respective players to provide alternative measures or necessary education as a means of reducing the incidence.

 

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