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.

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 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 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