By now, everyone has heard about the arrest of Oscar Pistorius, the "Blade Runner," for the alleged murdering of his girlfriend in the wee hours of Valentine’s Day. Prosecutors say that he shot her four times in cold blood, just two hours after police were called to respond to a loud domestic disturbance at the Pistorius home.
Ex-girlfriends have come out on both sides of allegations that Pistorius had a history of abuse. In late 2012, American football player Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend before turning the gun on himself in similar circumstances. These incidences and many others in the past have reignited a discussion about whether or not athletes are predisposed to violence at a greater level than non-athletes.
Patty Inglish, a martial arts grandmaster to Olympic and other world-class athletes, insists that humans are not inherently violent. She points to studies from the American Psychological Association and other scientists that say violence is learned in the first few years of life. Likewise, renowned sport psychologist Mitch Abrams asserts that the media perpetuates the myth of athletes being more violent because it sells, generating attention and views.
A recent German study may have shed some light on the subject by examining prolonged cortisol exposure. In 2011, a group of scientists published their findings after studying the effects of high intensity training on endurance athletes. According to the study, previous experiments for cortisol measurements always relied on saliva, blood, or urine tests. The problem with these tests, said the scientists, is that they were short term measurements and were unreliable at providing any insight into the long-term effects of cortisol exposure on the human body and brain.
Cortisol is a well-known naturally produced hormone. It is released by the human body when the brain is faced with an especially stressful situation that triggers the "fight or flight" mechanism inherent in all animals. Cortisol levels are now considered to have a direct link to suicide risk. Furthermore, it is widely known and accepted in the medical field that continued exposure to cortisol can lead to various ailments including Cushing’s disease, depression, mood swings, and insomnia.
The German study used hair samples from more than 300 amateur athletes, both men and women. They learned that during "off months" with normal exercise and life activities that there was no appreciable difference in cortisol level between men and women. Therefore, they reasoned, all were equal candidates for the study without need for segregation. As the athletes approached their "busy season" in mid-to-late summer and autumn, more samples were taken and tested throughout various times of their training and competitive routines.
What the tests revealed could be the breakthrough that scientists have been looking for since the mid-20th century. During the approximately four-month training season, all of the athletes exhibited alarmingly high levels of cortisone for extended periods of time — far from the few minutes that we would normally see in a stressful or threatening situation. The elevated cortisol levels would carry over for a short time after the competitive season and return to normal during the "off season."
When we consider the training regimen that world class athletes like Oscar Pistorius and Jovan Belcher are undertaking, we must now reasonably conclude that they are under a constant barrage of increased cortisol levels. These athletes literally eat, sleep, and breathe their sport and training. They are under the constant stress of competition and threat of failure. It is these cortisol levels that may very well be the ultimate cause of the rapid mental deterioration of some athletes, and ultimately the violence they commit if they fail to seek treatment.
Such treatment, says Dr. Abrams, needs to include learning coping skills. Many athletes have never had to learn coping skills because they have always been the best at what they do. They were king of the hill. But when you reach the mountaintop of your profession, everyone around you is just as good as or better than you are. It is then that the cortisol exposure begins to increase exponentially as your stress levels do the same. How someone copes with these hormonal changes can make all the difference in whether they become the "cool under pressure" quarterback, or the guy that cracks when the defense is ratcheted up.
Obviously, many of these athletes eventually crack. Sadly, too often it happens off the field. For the families of the girlfriends of Oscar Pistorius and Jovan Belcher, the news that there may be a real scientific reason for the breakdown is of little solace. For the rest of us, maybe we can show a little more sympathy for the young competitors in our lives. It could be that they just need some help learning how to cope with the stress of their chosen competition.