Carleton: The truth about big-game butterflies

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on October 21, 2014:

Tonight, the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants (who knew!) will square off in Game One of the 2014 World Series. I’m guessing that at least one of the 50 gentlemen on the two rosters will be a little nervous before the game starts. Maybe more than one. And surely, someone at a bar or on your couch or on a national telecast will opine on whether butterflies are currently flying in the stomach of just about every player that flashes across the screen. The World Series is amateur psychology’s finest hour.

I’m not an amateur. I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, so before everyone starts saying a bunch of silly things about how pressure is getting the better of Player X, we need to have a discussion about where butterflies come from, how they work, and what they really mean.

First things first. Butterflies in the stomach are not a character flaw. They are a simple fact of biology. When a human being realizes that a situation is particularly stressful (and yeah, being in a World Series counts), the body activates the “fight or flight” response. This happens to everyone. This response evolved to do pretty much what the name says. To survive, our ancestors either had to prevail in a fight against whatever animal they were up against or they had to run away faster. The fact that you are reading this suggests that the response was effective. But what happens is that the body gets ready to run by increasing the flow of blood through the body (your heart races), increasing its intake of oxygen (you breathe more heavily), and getting rid of whatever ballast it might be able to (you suddenly feel like you have to go to the bathroom and throw up). The body is getting ready to make fast, powerful movements, either striking out with power at that saber-toothed tiger or running really fast in the opposite direction of that saber-toothed tiger.

In baseball making quick powerful movements may sound like a great idea. A great swing is both quick and powerful. All that extra adrenaline should surely make a player better, right? Not so fast. Baseball is a wonderful game in that the balance that has to be struck between gross motor skills (the ability to hurl something really really fast) and fine motor control (the ability to make it spin just right so that it flies to an area that’s a couple of square inches big) is remarkably important. It’s not enough in baseball to just be a lumberjack. You need to be a lumberjack who can do a little ballet. So, that fight or flight response, which prioritizes power over nuance is going to affect a player. It might make him more jumpy or just less accurate, but it will likely make him a less good baseball player.

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Originally published: October 21, 2014. Last Updated: October 21, 2014.