These altered states, of course, do not occur on every play, but knowledge that they may occur can be crucial to a coach or athlete when trying to reconstruct what happened after a crucial loss or a fight or controversy. Baseball player Roger Clemens was called a liar for his version of an incident with umpire Terry Cooney in the most important game of the 1990 season for Clemens’ Boston Red Sox. Clemens, who was under enormous pressure to win the game for the Sox, was ejected after allegedly swearing at Cooney and threatening him, yet after the game, Clemens said he wasn’t aware that he’d been abusive and didn’t realize he’d been ejected. Could it be that athletes and officials who engage in heated confrontations get so worked up, they go into these distortions and later look like liars when they can’t remember what happened? It’s entirely possible, according to stress expert Massad Ayoob, who has investigated many such confrontations in police work.
Athletes sometimes have arousal levels so high, they allow their emotions to cloud their cognitions and thought processes and they may not think clearly, said Montreal sport psychologist Wayne Halliwell. A narrowed attention span is like looking through a straw and it can be very detrimental, said Gary Wells, a psychologist and researcher at Iowa State University. Under arousal or stress, the tension narrows; things that are central in [an athlete’s] line of vision may be encoded deeply, but peripheral matters are shut out.
When skiers are sent into high arousal through fear, they can create problems for themselves, says Marlin M. MacKenzie.
When scared, skiers invariably experience a sense of urgency to do something quickly, and they experience what seems to be an unusually rapid passage of time. Their perception of external reality is frequently restricted to tightly focused awareness of a danger immediately ahead that looms much larger than it normally is. Their internal screen is dominated by repeated meta pictures of imagined doom, such as hitting a tree, slamming into the billy bags, or tumbling forward over their skis. Sometimes they remember scenes of others who have fallen on the trail or racecourse ahead of them. Or they relive past accidents in their minds. They re-experience the pain and hear again the voices of the medical personnel who treated them. No wonder they lose control or have second thoughts about going down a tough new trail. No wonder they feel weak, break into a cold sweat, become covered with goose bumps, and get dizzy. Their fearful thoughts activate the autonomic nervous system and put them into a lousy state that precipitates even more doubt and fear.
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At the opposite end of the arousal spectrum, some athletes can go into trances that can put them at risk. Seven-time NASCAR national champion Dale Earnhardt sometimes goes into states before a high-charged car race that are so sedated, he falls asleep at the wheel. It’s not unusual for Dale to doze off before a race or under red-flag conditions, said Don Hawk, president of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. But it has almost cost him. In 1997 at the Southern 500, Earnhardt fell asleep at the wheel and his car crashed into a wall, putting him out of the race. He quickly recovered after tests at hospital. Joseph Healy, a neurologist at McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence, SC, believes that Earnhardt had entered some sort of altered consciousness.
Athletes must recognize and understand pain, James Loehr says. They must be tuned into their bodies and their feelings because they can get so focused that their pain becomes very distant and subdued. The smart athletes sometimes take a chance by playing to risk a tissue injury, but not structure damage. You’ve got to make sure something is not seriously wrong; you can’t just be macho about it.
Another dangerous distortion can be an athlete’s short-term feeling of power and invincibility while aroused. He may feel this power and energy will last throughout a competition, but, in fact, it may burn out along with the adrenaline and other short-term hormones.