81 : Uncovering The Influence of Toughness & Masculinity, Dr. Jarrod Spencer, Sports Psychologist

Jarrod Spencer Horizontal 81.jpg

Episode 81 brings us back to Bethlehem PA, to talk with Dr. Jarrod Spencer, Sports Psychologist at Mind of the Athlete.  Last time Jarrod was on the show in episode 50 we talked about the athlete transition to life after sports.  However, this time we spoke about a topic that I am very curious and passionate about, which is how our society's definition of toughness and masculinity affects athletes. This was our summer intern Alex's first field trip for the podcast, hence the nice action shots we have from the day (below).  George Bright, who has close to 30 years of experience in college athletics, also sat in on our conversation.

Below you will find an outline of our conversation:

  • Dr. Spencer's definition of toughness: like the classic definition; being comfortable being uncomfortable (being in a stressful situation that drains your energy and makes you anxious)
  • Toughest person in the eyes of Dr. Spencer : Tim Tebow. This is because he has stood up in the face of a culture that has pushed him down, but still does it with lifted spirits and a smile on his face.
    • Couldn't agree more!
  • How the media's portrayal of injuries has masked the reality of being a football player (not showing the icebaths, opiates/painkillers, the difficulty to treat pain).
    • It should be no surprise that this led to a discussion on cannabis.
  • Dr. Spencer believes the science is proving the benefits of cannabinoids.
    • That doesn't mean there isn't a downside.
      • THC w/ athletes: can become a problem for athletes that depend on it to relieve stress/anxiety.
    • The importance of rethinking the culture of Cannabinoids with a more scientific approach.
  • What the athletes need to know: It’s ok to cry and express yourself.
  • The importance that coaches understand the weight their words carry with young athletes.
  • How mental health is going to be the next big problem. NCAA could be a stepping stone for this.
  • Dr. Spencer's Earliest memory of toughness: Jr. High School Wrestler (Phillipsburg, NJ). Finished 2nd, and it felt like there was a death in the family.
    • Playing through injuries subsequently.
  • Memory bank: amygdala serves as a protective mechanism as a guideline
  • Overriding the amygdala: rethinking situations and taking different angles (relaxing, breathing, etc)
  • A moment Dr. Spencer felt emasculated: After suffering a concussion playing football in college because he was failing at the simplest tasks, which made him feel weak.
  • The moment when Dr. Spencer felt like he exuded toughness and masculinity the most: when his daughter became extremely ill about 10 years ago.
    • Proved that even sometimes when you are at your lowest, you will experience moments of toughness.
  • Where does the bar lie when it comes to toughness?
    • Relative to each person and family.
  • How do we redefine where that bar lies?
    •  When we put the science behind injuries that would normalize it and maybe make it more relatable to the public.
  • Gender discrepancy with toughness.
  • How does Jarrod define toughness for his kids? Definition of toughness to Jarrod’s kids
    • Surround them with the right people and role models
    • How they compete, how they worship God, how they talk, how they relate religion to their lives
    • Showing bright spots where they can emulate
  • Fellowship of Christian Athletes
    • Not just for Christians
The power of positive thinking.

The power of positive thinking.

After the interview, Dr. Spencer taught me about the power of positive thinking.  He did so by having me raise my arm out in front of me, think about a negative or positive thought while he tried to press my arm down.  It was amazing to see how much stronger I was when I was thinking positive thoughts.  George Bright noticed that subconsciously my stance also completely changed when I was thinking negative thoughts, which ended up putting me in a weaker position.

Photo: John Munson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com Ryan Finlay (Game MVP) of West Morris rolling out in the 24th Annual Paul Robeson Classic All-Star Game.

Photo: John Munson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Ryan Finlay (Game MVP) of West Morris rolling out in the 24th Annual Paul Robeson Classic All-Star Game.

To close out this post I just wanted to reflect on my experience of watching the 24th Annual Paul Robeson (I encourage you to do some research on Paul Robeson, he was one tough dude) All-Star Game where I was supporting my friend Ryan Finlay who will be playing safety for Gettysburg College next year.  I have spoken in depth with Ryan about how my definition of toughness has dramatically changed over the years.  This has also had an influence on the way that I watch football today.  There were three instances in particular I witnessed in this game that I wanted to address and this was just in the first half:

  1. Early in the game there was a phenomenal pick-six interception for the West team.  With any dramatic change of field like this, there are usually many opportunities for a big crack-back (blindside) block.  One of this players teammates laid a huge hit on the last remaining East defender which sprung him to a touchdown.  The crowd erupted, the sidelines went nuts, and even I found myself saying "Ohhhhhhh!" At that moment I realized that as a culture, we are all conditioned to react that way when we see a big hit and that even I am a part of the problem I am seeking to fix.  There was no replay at the game, but I do believe this player led with his head on this hit to an opponent that had no idea he was coming.  In my mind, a safer and equally as effective shoulder block could have been used.  Would the crowd still have erupted?  Yes, but to the same degree? Probably not, but what's more important? Your brain? Or how "cool/tough/masculine" you look on the field? I think my dude Kyle Turley referred to these types of hits as the extracurriculars that he could have done without. 
  2. The second incident happened as the East quarterback was rolled out to pass on forth down (I believe) , saw no one  open, tucked the ball and started running up the West sideline.  The East player still had about 4 yards to get the first down as a defender came in to make a tackle.  The quarterback had two options.  He could either run out of bounds, turnover the ball on downs, and not get hit. Or, he could attempt to run though the defender in hopes of breaking a tackle, but in all likely hood still not get the first down and potentially get hurt.  This player chose to go out of bounds.  All the West players started chirping at this QB and even parents in the stands were yelling "He doesn't want to get hit!" In my 27 year old eyes, this QB was smart, not a sissy.  Guys who want to extend their careers as long as possible should take notes from him. To me, there is a time and a place for lowering the shoulder and trying to gain some extra yards.  Those are near the goal line, and a yard from the first down in a playoff or championship game.  If you try to run people over in pre-season scrimmages, I promise you, you wont make it to the playoffs, but hey at least you looked "tough" for about 3 seconds.
  3. The last play was a hit that never happened.  A ball was thrown to a receiver in the flat.  One of the defenders recognized the play early on and made a be-line to make a big hit.  The defender left his feet and launched himself into the air like a missile to make the tackle.  Luckily, the receiver saw the flying defender at the last second and side-stepped him, gaining an additional 5 yards on the play.  I was sitting next to Ryan's brother Kevin and he said that kid almost got crushed. I replied to him saying yeah, but had he broken down and made a form tackle like we are taught, he wouldn't have missed the tackle.  Moral of the story is, are highlight hits worth costing your team yards?  I guarantee if that was a regular season game, the defender would be getting chewed out during the film session for missing that tackle.

I am not here to ruin America's precious game of football.  I love football and being at the game gave me that itch to throw the pads back on.  Kenny Chesney's Boys of Fall song says it all.  I brought those points up because in my eyes, those are simple ways to make the game safer without changing any rules.  I hope this this episode helps to reframe what toughness is to you and I believe that together, we can redefine it.

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