The Neuroscience of a Sports Broadcaster

The Neuroscience of a Sports Broadcaster

By Michael Schiavello

Michael Schiavello delves into the science of sports broadcasting and asks what drives commentators to do what they do.

Why do you do what you do? What is the driving force behind the occupation you do on a daily basis?

Is it as simple as remuneration? Is it proof of self worth? Do you perform your job for social acceptance? Are you driven by a need to achieve the goals you have set yourself or the goals others have set for you? Are you driven purely by materialism? Do you work for a sense of achievement? Do you work for love? Do you work for greatness? Does your job make you feel special and unique? Does it make you feel important? Is your job a ritual?

As a sports broadcaster for 20 years, I’ve often asked myself why I do what I do?

On the surface my answer touches on several of the above: proof of self worth is definitely a factor stemming from my childhood and a need to be heard and be accepted.

Achievement of goals I set for myself definitely fuels much of my physical and creative engine but is not the crux of why I do what I do.

A sense of achievement is important for anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life. Even the abstemious monk meditating under a waterfall experiences fulfillment in the accomplishment of a state of zen.

I work for greatness, not self-aggrandizing greatness but with a belief that we should strive to be great in all undertakings. To be great does not mean one has to be rich or famous. A chef, a street-sweeper, a janitor or an accountant can all achieve greatness within their profession. Greatness comes from conquering worlds. The world of yourself, your inner dreams, desires, wants and needs is no greater nor lesser than those of the movie star, the president, the billionaire, the dictator, the king or the religious leader.

I work for love, of this there is no doubt. I’m extremely passionate about what I do because I love my job. A sports broadcaster needs to love what he does. We cannot imbue passion in our viewers if we don’t not have passion in ourselves. We cannot give to others, something we don’t honestly have in ourselves.

“I was told many years ago by a broadcaster I greatly admire that sports is the toy department of life,” says UFC veteran commentator, Mike Goldberg “For me the most important elements of any broadcast are energy and enthusiasm. If I’m having fun, if I’m excited, if I’m passionate then how can those at home not say, Wow! This sport is awesome!”

Mike Goldberg along with Joe Rogan at a UFC event

Fulfillment, love, passion, achievement, money… they’re all reasons why I do what I do. But is there more to it? Do I do what I do — in fact do all sports broadcasters do what they do — because of something deeper set? Is sports broadcasting a part of our neural make up? Perhaps my brain is hardwired in such a way that the act of broadcasting triggers my nervous system to deliver an emotional reward each and every time I’m working. In simpler terms: perhaps I do what I do because it makes me feel good, just like sex.

“Like the athlete an announcer can experience that “zone”, that out of body phenomena when everything is clicking, all senses are razor sharp as if you can feel what is coming next,” says Kenny Rice, a twenty-year sports broadcasting veteran for NBC, ESPN and HDNET.  Among the many functions the brain performs, it sustains a twofold bodily control system that speeds us up and slows us down, according to our actions.

All of us have an ergotropic system and a trophotropic system. Simply put these arousal and quiescent systems operate as part of the same autonomic nervous system yet produce vastly different effects. The two systems most often work together to balance us: the ergotropic system (arousal) is commonly known as the fight-or-flight nervous system. In moments of stress, it raises the heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, hastens endocrine to the muscles, etc. The trophotropic system (quiescent) is the system of calm. It decreases the heart rate, slows respiration, and regulates cell growth, digestion, relaxation and sleep.

When your alertness increases (arousal) the relaxation system (quiescent) turns off. When you want to relax (quiescent) your alertness (arousal) switches off. However sometimes, such as during orgasm, both systems work at the same time. During sex the arousal system reaches a point of saturation. This causes the neural activity to spill over into the quiescent system, causing an ecstatic rush of energy. Writes Dr Robert Lomas PhD: ‘The state of hyper-arousal combined with intense relaxation has a deep emotional effect on you. It is a sexual reward that evolved a long time ago to encourage you to share your DNA.’

What the hell does any of this have to do with someone who commentates

fights for a living?

The key word in Dr Lomas’ quote is ‘reward’.

Everything we do in life is for some kind of reward. You watch television for the reward of entertainment or information. You cook for the reward of enjoyment and nutrition. You walk for the reward of fresh air, exercise or travel. You sleep for the reward of relaxation. You talk to people for the reward of communication. You attend school for the reward of education. You meet new people for the reward of friendship. You get into a relationship for the reward of companionship. You smile at a stranger for the reward of them smiling back.

So what reward does sports broadcasting offer? There are, of course, the obvious rewards: money for living; a platform for performance; a sense of achievement; a medium for creativity. But surely it offers something more than that?

“To be a part of something historical if only for a few people is a galvanizing force, that feeling that as an announcer there’s a responsibility, a training and preparation,” says Rice.

Kenny and El Guapo announcing the IFL

Is there a neural reward that makes us commentators do what we do? Euege D’Aquili, professor of psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and Andrew Newberg, a fellow at the hospital’s nuclear medicine programe, have conducted extensive research on how the brain operates. They found four extreme autonomic states that our brains can move between:

Hyper-quiescence (state of relaxation experienced during sleep);

Hyper-arousal (the opposite of hyper-quiescence);

Hyper-quiescence with arousal breakthrough (high level of arousal);

Hyper-arousal with quiescence breakthrough (trance-like state).

In analysing these four autonomic states I found that my job as a sports broadcaster stimulates hyper-arousal in my brain.

Dr Lomas writes that hyper-arousal is ‘the opposite of hyper-quiescence, this occurs when we feel excitement combined with alertness and deep concentration. It is the state of mind entered by marathon runners, motor racing drivers and fighter pilots in combat…happening when we need to take instantaneous decisions based on processing vast amounts of sensory input where conscious thought could be a dangerous distraction. People who experience it say it is like effortlessly channelling vast quantities of energy through their consciousness, resulting in a quintessential flow experience.’

Marathon runners, fighter pilots… sports broadcasters?

“[Broadcasting] has always provided me with an adrenaline rush long after high school playing days,” says Rice. “That anticipation of what might happen. For a sports announcer it’s like never leaving the field or the gym. Each event is different, each competition is new and unpredictable. And it keeps you perpetually young, as if you were still that athlete throwing the touchdown or hitting the jump shot with the high school cheerleaders looking on…when everything is clicking.”

At the start of his book The Call of the Game, veteran sports broadcaster Gary Bender describes the experience of commentating the Dallas Cowboys against the Minnesota Vikings as a CBS rookie in 1975. ‘Though it was sometime later before I knew the full ramifications of that broadcast, I realised for the first time what an immense responsibility a broadcaster has. You have to be accurate. You have to be prepared. You have to be able to capture the emotion of the moment. Though there is a tremendous amount of pressure because of rapidly unfolding events, you cannot lose your poise.’

Now read Dr Lomas’ description of the state of hyper-arousal once again:

‘…happening when we need to take instantaneous decisions based on processing vast amounts of sensory input where conscious thought could be a dangerous distraction.’

The amount of information a sports broadcaster processes in an instant is astounding. Take, for example, the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. In ten seconds of television there may be punches, kicks, knees, elbows, submissions, transitions, escapes, positional changes (vast to slight), cuts, bleeding, swelling, set-ups, unconsciousness, referee intervention, lack of referee intervention, crowd response, fighter expressions and more. On top of this you have on screen replays, director’s instructions in your earpiece, graphic pop-ups, countdown clock, cut-to-commercials, ad-libs, time stoppages, replays and more. While communicating all of this information in an instant, the sports broadcaster also endeavours to do so in as entertaining a fashion as possible. This is done through vocal pitch variance; use of words and phrases to ‘paint a picture’; relaying valid statistical information; relaying valid biographical information; knowing when to talk and when to let the vision ‘breath’; punctuating with humour and more. A commentator needs to learn how to manipulate all of this information and how to piece it together cohesively on live television — in the moment — as it is the sum of their parts that creates a whole broadcast. Until a commentator learns how to do this — how to flow — he remains stuck at the stage of, well, science before the work of Newton.

“To give the event, the athlete their due is challenging to the mind as I call a sport,” says Rice. “Even to the times of being physically tired and ready for a shower after certain games by so being in the moment every possible way as the action is being described.” The challenge of a ‘flow experience’ for the commentator leads to the reward of a fluent broadcast in which all of the elements come together in unison as a final, finished product. Practice is the key to meeting this challenge and achieving flow.

Whenever an aspiring commentator asks me for advice, my one-word answer is ‘practice’. When I was first asked to commentate kickboxing in 1995, I set out practicing before I put my mouth to microphone. I had commentated soccer, Australian rules football and track and field, but never kickboxing. Even though I knew the sport, having written about in for three years, I’d never vocalized it on television.

In a bid to develop a ‘flow’ for kickboxing commentary, I watched videos of fights from my collection. After watching a fight, I turned the volume down, watched it again and called the techniques. I then re-watched the fight a third time, with the volume up, and made sure that the techniques I had called were correct with what the commentators were saying. Once I was sure the techniques were locked in my mind, I turned the volume down and commentated portions of the fight, bit by bit, until I found how to describe the action in a way that was fluent and entertaining.

This is how I started as a fight sports commentator. There was no easy way about it. A lot of practice was necessary.

After a while it became easier and easier. I became so confident about my commentating ability that I could begin to inject my own style into broadcasts, utilising extreme vocal pitching and a high comedic element. The reward for practice was an achievement of ‘flow’. Educational theorist, John Dewey, would have said I’d moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, then to conscious competence, until with enough practice I achieved unconscious competence (the four stages of competence). If everything we do in life garners a reward — be it physical, psychical or spiritual — then I must say that being a sports broadcaster is a highly rewarding profession.

For Kenny Rice, broadcasting is about “being ready for the moment of a live game or fight, which still fuels the creative fire. [I have] a need to compete not against another announcer but an inner burning to capture the excitement or the disappointment that all fans will feel as the action unfolds.”

Mike Goldberg similarly enjoys the thrill of the challenge. “In 8th grade, I was a singer, I performed as part of a local act during the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon. After our performance I watched them do the news, live. The lights, camera, people, passion, energy… at that moment I knew what I wanted to be. From day one I strived to the best, not better than anyone else, but simply the best I can be.”

I am still not sure exactly what it is about broadcasting that gives me such pleasure. It may be the challenge or it may be the flow. Perhaps the appeal for me is in the ritual. Like Rice and Goldberg, I love the challenge of seeing how good I can get and what boundaries I can push to take the audience to a new level of entertainment. Behind the microphone I’m an alchemist; the event is my base metal and I have two hours to make the transmutation into gold.

Maybe I’m an addict, hooked on the the release of pleasurable chemicals

broadcasting generates in my neural pathways.

I do know, however, that I get just as much pleasure from commentating a small, local event as I do commentating the Olympic Games or a K-1 Grand Prix. And maybe it’s good thing that I can’t completely figure out just why it is that I do what I do. Perhaps that, in itself, is the attraction.

Michael Schiavello is the play by play caller for all HDNet fights and also does hour long one on one interviews for HDNet called “The Voice Versus”

Follow Michael on twitter @Schiavellovoice

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