The Hour Between Dog and Wolf
by Kevin Purcell, D.C.
Recently, I listened to a very interesting interview with world-class Cambridge neuroscientist John Coates, PhD who was discussing his new book. It focuses on the biology of risk taking and how our actions literally transform our body chemistry. It is fascinating stuff that may begin to explain why so many of us at one time or another have said, “Damn, why the heck did I do that!?”
Coates was a successful Wall Street trader who ran a derivatives desk prior to becoming a scientist. He witnessed behavior during boom and bust that drove men (especially young men) to extremes of euphoria and risky behavior or stress and depression.
He theorized that fear of risk (or lack of it) is closely tied to body chemistry, specifically testosterone. Through a series of noteworthy experiments, Coates uncovered a feedback loop between testosterone and success that dramatically lowers the fear of risk. At the same time he demonstrated that the level of risk taking in women is more stable. As well, he found that intense failure causes a rise in cortisol levels, the hormone that raises inhibitions for risk-taking.
He identifies "the hour between dog and wolf" as the moment traders transformed into highflying risk takers when on a hot streak or more tentative, risk-averse actors when experiencing losses.
Coates has studied our physiology in a way that may shed light on why athletes experiencing a great training streak have trouble taking much needed rest or suffer goal inflation prior to races and at the end of a taper. On the flip side, we are prone to pessimism and or depression during deep fatigue, injury and following execution errors that are a result of earlier exuberance. In short, the reason self-sabotage is so common in our sport.
When experiencing continuous opportunity or hot streaks we are prone to taking too much risk that can result in blowing up. According to Coates, “risk concentrates the mind—and the body—like nothing else, altering our physiology in ways that have profound and lasting effects.” We have been designed to sustain risk taking, and we love it.
However, we are not destined to repeat the same mistakes forever. Experience or a trusted advisor helps us sort out acceptable risk if we can remain objective. It is one of the reasons elder elephants will calm groups of young rogues. I recall Bobby McGee sharing that one day he was working with a world-class athlete who was laying down personal best training at the track and he stepped in and called off the rest of practice. It wasn’t the time or place.
How do we take this information and use it constructively? I suspect that rather than trying to muscle your mind over body; think mind and body working synergistically. We are all susceptible to being transformed from dog into wolf. This means we will be well served by recognizing personal tendencies, hot buttons and situations that lend themselves to missteps and their possible consequences. Use, don’t lose, your mind.
Kevin Purcell, D.C., works with long course triathletes; from elite to those new to endurance sport. Coach KP has guided dozens of athletes to qualification to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, including over 15 IM age group championships. Dr. Purcell is certified in Active Release Technique (ART) and has completed a medical rotation at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. Coach KP retired from competition in 2006.