Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Sport Psych Paper

So I've been doing a lot of writing things for classes lately, which is probably why I've been neglecting the update of this great blog (or maybe just because I don't write in it that much). But since I did do an expose on A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN a few months ago, I thought that my Sport Psych paper on this movie would be a great follow up.


“But Girls? Playing Baseball?” –
A Sport Psychologist’s Guide to A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own is probably one of the best movies ever made. Hands down. Take a star studded cast, a sibling rivalry, a country at war, America’s favorite past-time and some damn good characters, mix them all together, and you get one hell of a story. We start the film in the present, where our protagonist, Dottie Henson, is on her way to the induction of the All American Pro Girls League into the Baseball Hall of Fame. As she arrives, we FLASH BACK to when she was way younger, a time when America was at war and girls needed to play baseball while our boys were away. What we see unfold is the creation of a league, the stories of women on these teams, and the transformation of the league from a joke to a beloved pastime. And along the way, as in any great sports movie, we see how characters are psychologically affected in their sport. Though there are many great examples of sport psychology skills in this film, I will focus on three: The group and team dynamics inherent in the Rockford Peaches (Dottie’s team), the confidence level of Dottie’s kid sister Kit, as well as the response to injury from Jimmy Duggan (the team’s manager who used to play in the big leagues before a dehabilitating knee injury).

The first issue I will address is the team dynamics of the Rockford Peaches. First of all, the Peaches qualify as a team because they are a group of people with common objectives (winning) and they rely on each other to help achieve a goal. For instance, it doesn’t matter if Dottie catches all the fly balls in the world, because if on the next play Evelyn misses the cutoff man, runs will be scored. It is this interdependence that is central to the theory of a team. This is the team we follow for the majority of the movie, and since the league is just beginning as we watch, we get to watch the evolution of the team from tryouts to their ultimate loss in game 7 of the World Series. A real tearjerker. Returning our focus back to Sport Psychology, it is quite simple to follow the Peaches through the linear theory of group development. There are four stages to the linear theory: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Let’s look at each of these in more depth.

In the forming phase, a team comes together for the first time. People compare themselves to those around them, develop some sort of structure, and become familiar with each other. At tryouts, Dottie and Kit become familiar with Doris (played by Rosie O’Donnell) and her friend Mae (played by Madonna) in a way that leads to social comparison. As they first meet, Dottie and Kit ask if everyone will get to play in the league. Mae and Dorris say that there’s too many girls so “some of you are gonna have to go home.” Kit stupidly responds, “What do you mean some of us?” Then Doris proceeds to whip a baseball in their direction. Dottie BAREHANDS it, no problem! Doris and Mae are flabbergasted at her skill. Once they get put on the same team, they will start to compare themselves to the skill of Dottie and others as well. In the movie, there is a very clear time at which the team forms – when the lists are posted at the end of tryouts and all the Peaches sit on the grass together learning the rules of the league. Thus, a team has been born.

Next comes the storming phase. This characterized by is resistance to the leader, as well as interpersonal conflict. I think one scene that really personifies this stage is when the girls are on the bus traveling to a game and Evelyn’s son, Stillwell Darling, is being a brat and annoying everyone. The bus pulls over because the bus driver has quit (due to Stillwell). At this point, Mae picks up a baseball bat and says, “I’m sorry Evelyn but I am going to have to KILL your SON!” She then starts to chase him around the bus. This is one interpersonal conflict between players. Moments later, the girls plot to break league rules and go out to a bar that night. The way they plan to sneak out is by poisoning the dinner of Miss Huthbert, a leader and den mother of the team. Another problem with the Peaches is a constant jealousy that Kit has of her sister Dottie. In a way, Kit seems to hold the team in the storming phase because she can’t accept her role on the team. This comes to a head when Kit wants to finish pitching a game but Jimmy thinks she’s done. Dottie, who is a catcher, says she agrees with Jimmy. Kit gets taken out of the game, and she’s not happy about it. After the game, a fight ensues with Kit and Dorris. After this all goes down, Kit gets traded to Raccine, finally allowing the Peaches to advance to the next stage of group development.

In the norming stage, the team starts to come together to accomplish team goals. People appreciate their roles, and a sense of unity is created. At about this time in the movie, we see the Peaches in the locker room before a game getting ready. Evelyn plays her ukulele, and the team sings a song that helps to show the sense of unity that they all have created. They are not only playing at this point, but playing as a team.

The last stage is the performing stage. This is when things are going really well, and the team is performing at their peak. Players help one another succeed, and interpersonal relationships stabilize. This is where the Peaches are as they head into the playoffs and ultimately into the World Series. They are supporting each other, accepting their roles, and channeling all their energy towards success. We see examples of this during the World Series game, when Ellen Sue pitched one clearly into the dirt; Dorris encouraged her from third base, yelling, “It looked good to me!” This is one example of how the team evolved to support one another.

And since the Rockford Peaches reached this stage as they came into the end of the season, they probably weren’t in it very long until new players arrive for the next season and the process will start itself again. This is how a team develops.

Another psychological skill the movie highlights is confidence, specifically through the character of Kit. She always feels inferior to her older sister Dottie, who has been deemed the league’s “Queen of Diamonds” and always seems to one up her lil’ sis, even without trying. Confidence is the belief in one’s ability to be successful in a given activity. It is determined primarily by self-image, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-expectations. Let’s examine Kit’s self-image.

Kit’s self-image is not very good. She does not see herself in a positive manner, because her whole life people have been comparing her to the grand accolades of her sister. Let’s go through the Self-Image Cycle with Kit’s behavior as we meet the sisters at a farm game in their home state of Oregon. Kit is about to go up to bat and Dottie pulls her aside and points out a big hole in left field. She also tells her to “lay off the high ones.” Kit replies, “I like the high ones.” Then Dottie calls Kit a “mule” and Kit retorts “nag!” Now Kit goes up to bat. Her self-image, how she sees herself, leads to her attitudes in the situation. Since Kit sees herself as being inferior to her older sister, her self-image is low. Therefore, her attitude about being in a key hitting situation is going to be negative. Her attitudes then help mold her expectations of a certain situation. Since her attitude about hitting is negative, her expectation is probably to either strike out or get thrown out. Now that she has these expectations, they feed into her behavior – since Kit thinks she isn’t going to succeed, she probably is not thinking about the strike zone as much as she should, and is just swinging away. She also may not swing at something she could hit because her expectation is to fail. In this case, she swings at the high ones. And misses. STRIKE OUT. Her behavior in the situation ultimately led to her performance, which turned out to be poor. Now this performance helps shape her self-image for the next time she finds herself in a similar situation. And so goes the cycle. Maybe if Kit had a different self-image going into the situation, she would have had positive attitudes, different expectations and behaviors, and maybe she would have gotten a hit. But she didn’t. And since Dottie batted after her and hit a homerun, it probably further confirmed her initial feelings that her sister is better than her. It’s a tough life for Kit.

Now let’s look at ways in which Kit can build her self-confidence. One strategy involves the “Thought-Action Relationship.” This theory preaches that thoughts and actions have a cyclical relationship. Therefore, thinking confidently will eventually make someone act confidently, and acting confidently will help the mind follow. In Kit’s case she can “fake it ‘til she makes it.” Although she always gets put down and compared to her sister, if she acts confidently and like she knows she’s a great pitcher and player, her thoughts will eventually follow. I think this is what partially happens in the final play of the last game of the World Series. Kit ignores the hold up sign at third base and charges towards home plate. The throw is in time, and Dottie stands waiting to tag Kit out. Kit then BARRELS her over, showing no mercy to her elder sister. In this moment, Kit has decided to act with confidence. She is acting like she can take on her superstar sister. Dottie falls to the ground and…DROPS THE BALL. The Peaches lose the Series, and Kit becomes a star. She is finally thinking confidently, her thoughts have followed in the footsteps of her actions. Therefore, Kit has finally broken her streak of low self-image, esteem, efficacy, and expectations. She has developed self-confidence (maybe in part to Dottie throwing the game? Just a theory…).

The last skill I will touch on in this paper is the psychology of injury. In the movie, the manager of the Rockford Peaches, Jimmy Duggan, used to be a great ball player until he messed up his knee (in an un-game related alcohol incident). Now we see him struggle with the plight of a former superstar who now cannot even walk without a limp. This makes him an ideal candidate for an example of psychological reactions to injuries. When an injury happens, athletes go through something that is called the “Grief Response.” It has five phases – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Although Jimmy’s injury happened many years ago, as we meet him, he still seems to be stuck in the anger phase – being rude to others, not taking his job seriously, and resenting the girls for their opportunity to play baseball. If someone does get stuck in one of the stages of the Grief Model, they may display signs such as anger, obsession and mood swings. Jimmy demonstrates all of these traits. His anger is shown as he screams as Evelyn for missing the cutoff person, causing her to cry. Jimmy then goes nuts, telling her repeatedly that there’s “no crying in baseball!” When the umpire comes over to tell him to calm down Jimmy proceeds to tell him he looks like a “penis with a little hat on.” Then Jimmy gets thrown from the game. His anger was apparent in this scene. He shows signs of obsession through his drinking problem, which is demonstrated as he is constantly slurping from a flask, as well as his addiction to chewing tobacco. His mood swings are shown as he is happy one moment and screaming the next. These are all signs of poor adjustment to injury, and that Jimmy Duggan is still stuck in the Grief Response after several years.

The fact that Jimmy will never again play baseball is another reason why it’s hard for him to adjust to his injury. He is facing identity issues, for instance he can’t go fight against the Nazis because of his knee. He references it to Dottie, showing his trigger finger and saying that it is sufficient to kill Nazis. Also, his body image has probably gone way down. He was used to being able to crush baseballs and make big plays, now he has trouble just walking. This is a big adjustment that Jimmy seems to have trouble with. Hopefully he will eventually reach a stage of acceptance with his injury, as well as himself. He seems like a good guy at heart.

So, as you can see, A League of Their Own is not only a gem of a film, but also a showcase of Sport Psychology and it’s various topics. The characters all lend themselves to psychological scrutiny, both on and off the field. If you wanted to, you could write an entire BOOK on the psychology inherent in the movie. But I don’t want to bore you. I hope you have a great day, and if you have a couple hours, pop in A League of Their Own, and get a box of tissues ready! (I needed a couple…)