What makes a good athlete makes a bad gambler.

Thanks for visiting this blog. My experience in competitive sports (amateur boxing) and my passion for preventing and treating problem gambling converge here. Periodically, I will highlight a different characteristic of competitive athletes, or aspect of competitive sports. These traits and concepts, I believe, are adaptive in one setting, but mal-adaptive in another. That is, what works in the ring, on the field, or on the course doesn’t work out so well at a poker table, slot machine, or in sports betting. I welcome comments and feedback. It’s an important time for athletes and problem gambling counselors/advocates. The repealing of PASPA (Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) is opening up many states to legalized sports wagering. It makes sense, then, to discuss the potential impact on athletes, a group already at increased risk for problem gambling. Check out Nicasa’s site http://www.safersportsbetting.com to see strategies for non-disordered gambling, learn the signs of a potential problem, and explore the services we have to help. Free or low-cost gambling counseling is available at sites throughout Lake County, IL. Free workshops on athletes and gambling, as well as on gambling disorder in general, are available for any interested group. E-mail gamblingservices@nicasa.org to connect to counseling or inquire about a free workshop.

“If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize.” -Muhammad Ali 1942-2016

Luck Be a Lady

Another trait competitive athletes have in common with problem gamblers is magical thinking. How many athletes believe rituals, talismans, facial hair or even lucky socks (they don’t change very often), can ensure a win? Likewise, problem gamblers believe they can influence outcomes by repeating specific actions, carrying lucky charms, betting on certain numbers… The fact is, no one truly believes that the cards in their hand will change because they knocked on their chips a specific number of times, or that the reels of a slot machine will land on triple 7’s if they utter a mantra before pulling the handle. At least, they don’t believe it on a conscious level. However, they often feel it. Luck seems to be something tangible, that can be influenced by our actions or even our needs. (How many times have you heard “mama needs a new pair of shoes”?!) Often, this belief is initiated or reinforced by an actual pairing of an object or action with a win (whether it be a sporting event or gambling episode). The person wore those socks and had a win. There. Connection made. This superstitious mindset, independent of mathematical odds or laws of physics, is very compelling. It makes sense, then, that someone who comes by that mindset naturally, that being a superstitious competitive athlete, has the potential to transfer these beliefs if they choose to gamble. Add to that, athletes don’t rely solely on luck. Without the skills required for their sport, they wouldn’t be achieving high levels of competition to begin with. This is why many athletes and former athletes are often drawn to forms of gambling that include a degree of skill. That strongly held identity of being a “winner” we already discussed, paired with a superstitious mindset, might further predispose a competitive athlete to gamble in a disordered way. It would be safer, then, for an athlete choosing to gamble to remember this mantra: “the house always wins.”

A Positive Mindset

This poem was shared with me, and it goes so much to the positive mindset many athletes pursue and achieve, that I thought I would share it. So much of what this blog focuses on is how athlete’s traits and behaviors can go awry outside of a sports setting. Here, an athlete’s internal struggle is highlighted in a positive and hopeful way. We all need a little of that right now, don’t we?!

“Thinking” -by Walter D. Wintle:

If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost
For out of the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins

Don’t leave it in the hands of the judges.

It can be nerve-racking waiting for a decision. The seconds seem like hours when you are waiting to see who’s hand is going to be raised in triumph: yours, or that of your opponent’s. There will always be the chance that things don’t go your way, that the judges didn’t see what you think they should have seen, that points you should have been awarded somehow went to your opponent. How will the match be called? Hard to say. My coach always said “don’t leave it in the hands of the judges.” Meaning: put them down; end it by knockout, and there will be no question who won. Likewise, when it comes to problem gambling, we might shake our heads and say “I hope they do something about this.” But who are “they?” If you are worried about what is being done in your community to prevent problem gambling, or to get those who develop problems connected to help, there are a lot of options that require only a little effort. March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month (PGAM). It’s a great time to think about ways to increase public awareness of gambling disorder and the help that is available. I recently competed in an athletic event and wore a t-shirt designed to educate athletes about our increased risk for problem gambling. I also gave away t-shirts and information cards to some of the other participants, in order to help spread the word.

This is just one example of some of the things we can do to help. Whether or not our communities are prepared to prevent and address problem gambling? Not something we want to leave to chance. Consider some of the ideas below:

  • write a letter or e-mail to your community leaders asking them about their efforts to prevent and address problem gambling. Cite what you know about the gambling available in your community, and the importance of all aspects of the community coming together to prevent any unintended social costs of problem gambling.
  • reach out to your local gambling counseling program and seeing what they need. Do they have brochures you can keep in the lobby at your place of business? Do they have an awareness event you could share fliers for, sponsor or contribute to? Do they need help getting information out about their services? We are so fortunate to have a volunteer at our program that helps organize data from outreach events and send mailings out to groups we hope to connect to, in order to provide public awareness materials. This has been immeasurably helpful. Can you offer your organizational skills similarly? Who knows how you can help?!
  • offer up your space for a support meeting
  • host a public awareness event
  • Print out and post information on problem gambling (check out http://www.ncpgambling.org as a starting point) and local help
  • add the Problem Gambling Awareness Month image (below) to your email signature line
  • discourage underage play. Most people don’t know that letting kids gamble (ex. giving them lottery tickets, placing a bet for them at the track, or a sporting event) increases their chance of developing a gambling problem. So, tell them. (But tell them nicely. We don’t know something until we do!)
  • Can’t think of anything? E-mail gamblingservices@nicasa.org, and we can brainstorm. Thanks for reading.

“I Coulda Been a Contender”

When an athlete has a career-ending injury, a good deal of emotional and psychological distress can result. Years and even decades later, the athlete imagines what titles they could have won, if only they hadn’t gotten hurt. If only the doctors had just cleared them to play. If only… So what can a competitive athlete do to feel on top of the world again? We’ve already established that so much of an athlete’s identity is wrapped up in their career. If they are no longer an athlete, then what are they? All of the adrenaline and excitement that came with training and competing comes to an abrupt end. How can that be replaced or replicated? So many aspects of their lives had been put on hold: attending to their families and other important relationships, developing alternate career opportunities or job skills; etc. How are they supposed to immediately take on the responsibilities they were exempt from as they focused on training? After a career-ending injury, we have someone who’s identity and confidence has been stripped, who went from a level of intense sensations and gratification to none, and who suddenly has a great deal of unexpected stress. All of this, without their usual way of coping (training and competing) being available to them. This can be a recipe for disaster, should the athlete turn to gambling as a means of coping, of reaching previously enjoyed levels of excitement, of feeling like they’re still important. It isn’t easy, but all athletic careers come to an end. Whether this be expected and over time, or swiftly with a career-ending injury, it is important for the athlete to be cautious about engaging in gambling, substance use, or other potentially risky behaviors at this time. Adding gambling problems onto an already challenging period is just not worth the risk.

Dont Call it a Comeback…

It’s not uncommon for athletes to “lace up the gloves” long after they’ve past their prime. I’m middle-aged. But if I’m 100% honest, I think I’ve still got one last fight in me. And I truly think I could win. Gambling like an athlete means you can stay away for years, but decide you’ve got one more left in you. You attempt to relive the glory days, remembering your past wins. Research has shown that memories that are salient, or meaningful, are remembered for longer and more clearly than those that aren’t. Guess what? Wins have been found to be more salient than losses. So, if someone looks back on their gambling career, they think they did much better than they probably did. The wins stand out. The losses? Not so much. Unfortunately, like some athletes who left the safety and nostalgia of retirement, a return to gambling for some can be a spectacular fail. Athletes often have a “go big or go home” mentality. Gambling like an athlete could mean damage and destruction in just one night of play.

Adrenaline and tolerance

When talking about the link between competitive sports and problem gambling, the adrenaline-rush that can be part of an athlete’s experience is often brought up. We’ve all heard of the “runner’s high” and have seen some pretty impressive feats of athleticism that may be due, in part, to the athlete getting a boost of adrenaline at the right moment. Adrenaline is a neat thing, and can flood the body during a “fight or flight” situation. It can increase one’s speed, strength, mental acuity, and more. It makes sense that, if you’re about to be hit by a bus (or, let’s say, a linebacker), all of these functions might come in handy. If this same phenomenon happens in a sporting event, amazing things can happen. The experience can be intense, as well as intensely rewarding. A sense of euphoria can occur.

And like other “intoxicating” experiences, the feeling can sometimes wear off over time. It takes more and more to feel the same level of excitement. We see this with alcohol and with other substances of abuse. Over time and exposure, tolerance increases, and more of the substance is required to get the same affect. With gambling, this looks a little different. For some, it’s a matter of increasing the amount they bet in order to feel the same. Someone who played $10 a hand on Blackjack might start playing $25 or $50 a hand. A Bingo player might go from managing 1 or 2 cards at a time to filling their whole table with cards. The way people bet might also reflect a tolerance response. For example, a poker player might start “playing blind,” or betting without seeing their hand, in order to increase their excitement level.

What does this have to do with athletes? Athletes who frequently experience that runner’s high, may need to “up the ante” to replicate a feeling they have become accustomed to. A good gambler bets only what they can afford to lose. They don’t increase the amount they bet in order to keep the adrenaline flowing.

Visualization and Preoccupation

Visualizing is part of a competitive athlete’s skill set. Watch a bobsledder gearing up for a race. They get a far away look in their eyes; bob this way and that way to the turns of the course they have memorized in their heads. In that moment, they’re in their sled, careening down the course. Most athletes also visualize themselves winning. They see that knockout punch, that ball soaring over the fences, or into the net. They picture their arm being raised or stepping onto the podium. These are all adaptive in the arena of competitive sports. What could go wrong? A preoccupation with gambling is one feature of gambling disorder. Those with a problem spend a great deal of time fantasizing about past wins, or future play. They can picture their hand, slowly revealing a pair of hooks (Jacks), kings, queens or aces. They can see the ball settle on their number/color on the roulette wheel, or their horse cross the finish line a nose ahead of the competition. Unfortunately, an athlete’s ability to visualize so precisely and with such focus, if applied to their gambling, facilitates a degree of preoccupation that can be characteristic of a disordered gambler’s. Once again, gambling like an athlete is not a winning scenario.

“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” -Muhammad Ali

With all due respect to humble athletes everywhere, humility can actually be less common than egotism in the world of competitive sports. This actually makes sense when, at high levels, the difference between first and second place can be a fraction of a second, an inch, or a point. Sometimes athletes with identical skills and talent perform vastly differently based on that intangible quality often called “heart.” Have you ever heard “who wants it more?” at a sporting event? Athletes go in believing that they are better, that they will triumph. Walk-in songs at boxing and mixed martial-arts events aren’t self-deprecating. They feature themes of invincibility, toughness, and superiority. No one talked trash or built themselves up better than the “Greatest of All Time,” and the tradition of self-aggrandizing continues and will always be an integral part of many competitive athletes’ mindsets, of getting themselves pumped or psyched for their next event. So, how does this translate to the world of gambling? Well, gambling like an athlete means you think you can beat the odds, that you are better than the other players, better than the dealer; that you’ve got a system. You believe you can win by sheer force of will. This mindset has paid off, after all, in countless sporting events. The power of the mind is astounding. Visualization of performing, of winning, can and does translate into performing well in actual sporting events. But in gambling, no degree of visualization can change mathematical odds and the randomness of outcomes.

Chasing losses.

Chasing losses is a term related to what someone does when they gamble and lose. Instead of counting these losses as the cost of playing, a disordered gambler comes back later that day, another day, or at the earliest opportunity to try and win back what they’ve lost. This usually leads to more losses, which are then chased, and the downward spiral continues. The losses mount up, and the desperate need for a bigger and bigger win to make up for it continues. How an athlete responds when losing is another characteristic that doesn’t translate well from sports to gambling. A competitive athlete doesn’t quit when they are losing. They grit their teeth, swing for the fences, and hope for a wild hay-maker to turn the fight around. They fight through the pain. High level athletes often continue training and competing despite serious injuries. The big win will make it all worth it. Likewise, there is pain that comes with problem gambling (crushing debt, relationship problems, job problems, guilt, shame). And the only solution, to a problem gambler, is to keep playing, to look for that big win that will make everything alright. But, as we already know, in the event they actually do win, they won’t stop then either. The playing continues, and the associated pain mounts. Further, competitive athletes view themselves as winners, not losers. If they find themselves losing, it goes against everything they believe about themselves. It challenges the foundation of who they are. They dig deep, push on, leave it all in the ring. So, gambling like an athlete means chasing losses to the point of a career ending injury. That’s a spoiler for a later post on the subject. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Quit while you’re ahead.

If you gamble and somehow find yourself “up,” the practical thing to do would be to walk away. If you’re a competitive athlete, do you quit after you win? No, you don’t. If you win locally, you go to regionals. You win regionals, you go to state. Go to state, try for the national title. Some athletes may even look to the Olympics. No win is ever big enough; you always strive for the next title. If you gamble like an athlete, you will not walk away after a win. Get a full house, then you want a straight flush. You get the point. Gambling like an athlete means you keep playing long after you’ve lost your winnings. We’ve all heard the saying “keep your eye on the prize.” That is what athletes do. But when they attain that prize, they’re looking ahead to the next prize. And if they end up winning at the highest level of their sport, the goal often then becomes to do it again, become a 2-time or 3-time World Champ or gold medalist. This is just one reason being a good athlete can lead to being a bad gambler. Stay tuned for the next post for more.