Thursday, June 19, 2014

Psychological Gender Differences in Action Sports: Do Males Have a Risk-Taking Edge?

Regarding psychological gender differences In Action/'Extreme'-Sports performance:  The age-old argument of 'Nature Vs. Nurture' should be thrown out.  It is BOTH Nature and Nurture that make us so different as male vs. female risk-takers, when we strip it down to the central psychological core.

You can train away most of the 'nurture' part by starting girls off at a very young age and by exposing them to and encouraging high-risk sports and challenges rather than Disney princess movies and tea-parties.  But you can never train away anatomical brain-gender differences.

As the level of risk goes up and the consequence of failure nears major injury or even potential death, the psychological pendulum swings toward the male brain, giving males a biological-based, advantage.  Males consider consequences less.  At that critical moment of high-risk, the male brain shouts "Go for it.  You got this.  Your buddies are watching and they already went..." without hesitation, more often than a female's brain, which more intelligently, may take another moment or two for additional risk-analysis before leaping.

You can't simply train away brain-anatomical differences.  There's not an exercise for it.  Male brains are bathed in testosterone beginning in the womb while a females' are bathed in estrogen, physically altering brain structure from the womb onward.  Men's brains have more testosterone receptors while female brains have more estrogen receptors.  Those receptors can't be switched off.  Neuro-mapping and pathways, and how we use right and left hemispheres of our brain may be altered to a degree.

Males are more 'fight or flight' while females are biologically (nature) more 'tend and mend'.  Male brains are wired to have a higher threshold of risk and be combative, while females can be more patient and nurturing. This isn't about one gender being better than the other.  There are pros and cons on both sides.  Why do you think women give birth and live longer on average, and have more social and emotional connections?  Where would I be without my wife of 19 years?  Probably dead or a surf bum on an island somewhere.

Women will always have larger Prefrontal Cortexes and smaller Amygdalas, than men -  Lower risk taking behavior and more emotionally involved, respectively.  Men will always have more testosterone than women.  This is not a negative, this is just biology.  Testosterone receptors in the male brain, may give a risk-taking edge.  We should be different and be allowed to be different, and embrace our respective gender if we choose.

There is this idealistic notion out there that females should be able to perform equally, on the same level as males in action-sports.  I don't agree, and if we are waiting for that day to happen, it may never come.  Progress in action sports has always been lead by males by a huge margin.  This does not mean that watching women extreme athletes is any less compelling or exciting.  The relative level of competition is just as intense, as is their relative rate of progression.  We must also take into account there are many more males than females participating in and competing in Action-Sports which will also widen the progression gap just by the gap in (lack of) involvement.
2013 X-Games bronze medalist, and 2013 Ladies Pro Bowl World Champion Julz Lynn (Kindstrand), above, seems to have honed her psychological fitness over many years of skating and found that critical mental edge  - that sweet spot of dopamine, Flow, clarity and adrenaline combining into present-moment magic.
Of course there are exceptions on both sides of the sexes.  There is no one-size-fits-all psychological profile that all of us neatly fit into, regardless of our gender.  Age, education, injury, career, parenthood, all continue to shape our psychology and level of risk-taking, throughout our life.

There's also the dopamine factor which is not gender-biased: The reward neurotransmitter when we are immersed in an activity that provides just the right amount of challenge and risk for our ability.  This fully immersed in the present-moment state of mind is also known as 'Flow' and all top level athletes know it and become addicted to it. Addicted to dopamine - a major driver in performamce.

**In the following video, we witness Julz Lynn (Kindstrand), 2013 Ladies Pro Bowl World Champion skating the Vans Combi Pool in the 2013 women's championship.  She looks very impressive, and not just 'for a girl' but by any standard.  She appears to be in her element at all times - in the zone, and in a state of psychological Flow.  She is completely immersed in the present-moment of her skating.  There is inherently a high level of risk and penalty for failure that she is no doubt aware of, but she never shows hesitation or loss of focus.  The risk is compartmentalized into her subconscious, which is what top level athletes are able to do:
(Direct link to video: Julz Lynn, Vans Combi Pool 2013)

...But now when we look at the next video, which is the same venue (Vans Combi Pool), but of Julz's male counterpart, 2013 Men's Pro Bowl World Champion Pedro Barros, we can see the margin when comparing performances between these two is substantially large, in both level of risk and technical degree of difficulty:
(Direct link to video: Pedro Barros, Vans Combi Pool 2013)

This above video comparison is just one example and it is an extreme one.  And there are those who argue the gender gap in performance can be attributed to simply the number of male skaters on the planet vs. the much lower number of females skating on the planet.  Again, this is a factor to consider.

This does NOT mean that there shouldn't be gender-equality for pro women athletes when it comes to event inclusion, air time and prize money.  That is beyond the scope of this post.  But the market should also be allowed to value women athletes for their beauty and grace, as well as their level of risk or degree of technical difficulty, without being labeled sexist or discriminatory.  The market should be allowed to remain organic in it's course, and seek ratings and profit.  At the end of the day, ESPN for example, is just trying to run a for-profit business.

(As of Summer 2014 while other female athletes continue to make gender-equality progress with their male equivalents, ESPN has cut women's skate vert-ramp an park events from their line-up, which is the main reason I chose to use the Vans Combi Pool Pro contest for the side-by-side video comparison above.)

I would like nothing more than to be proven wrong by the young girls coming up right now - they just might have it in them.  Or at the very least, equal prize money for pro females, matching their male counterparts.

More on physical gender-differences and limitations in my upcoming blog.  I haven't even touched on the physical differences, of which females have many advantages...

- Sincerely,
Max Wettstein
Fitness Professional, father of a female amateur athlete, and silent backer of several all-female athlete organizations.  (I'm on your side.)

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