Our environment influences us more than we care to realize. We are a part of where we live and that’s why urban planners are paid well. The field of environmental psychology attempts to understand how our surroundings affect both our mood and our behavior.
The power of the environment can be seen from Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s famous prisoner experiments out at Stanford University. Zimbardo’s findings revealed that our moral compass is set more by where we find ourselves rather than what we hold to be true on the inside. In his experiments, if you were assigned the role of prison guard, given a uniform, and placed in a prison setting, you immediately become authoritarian and cruel. And conversely, if you were assigned the role of prisoner in that experiment, you became acquiescent and subservient and ashamed.
These findings were not lost on Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton or criminologist George Kelling and his “Broken Windows” theory. It states that a few broken windows lead to more broken windows, and this is followed by even more criminal-type behavior. Armed with that information, Giuliani and Bratton got strict on petty crimes like squeegee men and fare-jumping and turned the criminal environment of New York City around. No small task.
As a sport psychologist, I have noticed another way that different environments seem to influence behavioral change in athletes. When a young athlete plays two sports, they sometimes can take the mindset of one sport and use it in the other. I call this cross fertilization. As an example, an elite high school baseball player learned how to be “free and aggressive” at the plate by remembering how it feels to play linebacker on his football team.
A talented college baseball player realized that he was just a relaxed bogey golfer and this easing of expectation was adopted in his baseball and enabled him to be more relaxed when at home plate.
A world class MMA champion uses the game of chess during his pregame hours to relax his mind and body.
Cross fertilization, or taking skills learned in one environment and using them in another environment, was used by Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger. When training for his Mr. Olympia contests in the early 70s, he realized that his body movement from one pose to the next lacked grace, so he started taking ballet lessons to learn graceful movement.
Every sport has its own emotional demand characteristics. If you play football, you had better be fast and furious. If you play golf, you had better be calm and cool. If you fence, you had better be focused and clever and it is only the very smartest of athletes who can learn from one domain and translate that learning into another sport.
I am certain that acting classes could teach a champion tennis player how to act confidently, singing classes could teach a golfer how to swing more smoothly and yoga classes can teach NFL players how to keep their balance. The future of sports will be about cross fertilization.
The world is shifting and most feel some level of existential dread with all the bad news and unpredictability. But during liminal times of change there is opportunity to make improvements. And it may be that one of the best ways to make improvements is to take something you learned from one domain and translate it into another.
A successful athlete or businessperson must be curious enough to do this. If you are an athlete, find yourself an art form you can enjoy and learn from. Sports are filled with social gamesmanship, so maybe it’s time for some acting classes to teach you how to act cool and nonchalant when under duress. Wasn’t it Sun Tzu in “The Art of War” who said warfare is mostly about trickery?
And if you are a writer, maybe it’s time to take up long-distance running to give you the strength and the stamina to sit all day long at the computer. It seems to be working for Haruki Murakami, who has won nearly every literary prize known to man and is also a marathon runner. Life is filled with many fascinating things to do, so go try something new, fall in love with it and watch what happens to the rest of your life. As they say, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”