Anger Management Specialist Addresses Mixon IncidentFeb 03, 2017
It’s one thing to vent your anger via social media with an eruption of bad language and insults. You can debate about civility and appropriate language in these cases. But when your temper flashes white-hot, and you lash out physically, everyone agrees that’s crossing the line. And when video captures that moment of physical anger for everyone to see, you can bank on the world returning a guilty verdict about your character in spite of any other facts.
That’s the situation OU running back Joe Mixon finds himself in as he prepares for the 2017 NFL draft. Nobody denies the tremendous talent of the young man, but the questions about his character cling to him after the release of a 2014 taped incident in which, after being slapped by fellow OU student Amanda Molitor, he punched her and broke four bones in her face.
Dr. Mitch Abrams, a clinical, forensic, and sports psychologist who helps athletes learn to harness their anger and other negative emotions, says Mixon was already in a no-win situation the moment Molitor slapped him.
“The first thing is that a guy has to understand,” said Dr. Abrams. “If you get hit by a woman, you lose no matter what.”
Dr. Abrams challenges those who say Mixon was in any way justified in his response to Molitor’s attack.
“There were people trying to defend Mixon with the ‘she hit him first’ argument,” said Dr. Abrams. “Come on! The amount of force this guy knocked her out with was a lot different than what she brought to him.”
But while Dr. Abrams believes that Mixon was completely in the wrong with his response to Molitor’s attack, he also challenges the notion that athletes are more angry or aggressive than any other segment of the population.
“The research is clear that athletes are no more violent than any other group of people, especially when you define athletes as loosely as we do,” said Dr. Abrams. “It’s a myth that’s been perpetuated. We have millions and millions of people playing sports, so the idea that they’re more violent than non-athletes is not true.”
According to Dr. Abrams, a big part of the problem with helping athletes manage their emotions is that too many people misunderstand anger. He believes the simplest way to understand why it’s important to control your anger is to picture yourself preparing a meal.
“Anger is like high heat when you cook a steak,” said Dr. Abrams. “You want to make a good steak, you need high heat, but when you don’t control the heat, you burn it up and get a piece of leather.”
For Dr. Abrams, anger management isn’t about “anger’s bad, don’t to it.” It’s more an understanding of how to recognize, harness, and channel that powerful emotion.
“Listen, at moderate levels anger can make you stronger, faster, and even decrease your perception of pain,” said Dr. Abrams. “But when you go too far and fall off that cliff, your fine motor coordination, problem-solving skills, decision-making ability, and your vision – all of those things go downhill.”
Dr. Abrams notes that most people can be taught to recognize and address the physical signs that their anger is heating up. These signs are things like increased heart rate, changes in the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight responses), breathing rate, muscle tension, and sweating. But that’s a real challenge for athletes, especially in contact sports.
“The problem with athletes is that all of those things normally happen as a part of the sport,” said Dr. Abrams. “So trying to teach athletes anger managements skills that typically apply to situations that are the norm for them, that happen all the time, that’s useless to them.”
So how do you help athletes address anger in a healthy way? Dr. Abrams says that he’s had success by tackling the issue both on and off the field of play.
“When somebody is so amped in sports that they’re making bad decisions they’ve gotta tap out,” said Dr. Abrams. “But because they often don’t know they’ve crossed the line you use the buddy system and educate the entire team to recognize when a teammate has crossed the line. Then you just give them ways to get that teammate out of the situation.”
For off-the-field anger, Dr. Abrams focuses on taking the lessons they’ve learned while “in battle” and applying them to the rest of their world.
“They learn to lower their baseline and calm themselves down,” said Dr. Abrams. “Then you teach them to appreciate the danger they put themselves and their teammates in when they allow their anger to control them instead of controlling it.”
Sheilla Dingus, who works on behalf of athletes for AdvocacyforFairnessinSports.org, has also had a front-row seat to anger in sports. Dingus believes that NFL executives need to tread very carefully as they consider drafting Mixon.
“If I were a GM of an NFL team I’d be very concerned,” said Dingus. ”Obviously he’s a very talented player, and of course the teams meet with the players. I would make sure I met with him, talked to him and got him to positively commit to assessment and therapy before I’d ever sign him.”
Dingus adds that while she doesn’t think it’s fair to demonize the OU running back, there should be consequences to the incident.
“I don’t think a mistake made at age 19 should ruin a person’s life,” said Dingus. “But you can’t dismiss what the victim went through, and so he needs to be accountable, even if he was 19 years old. You need to understand that you don’t punch women. In fact, you don’t punch anybody.”
Both Dingus and Dr. Abrams are in agreement when it comes to what should happen to athletes like Mixon in the wake of violent incidents like these.
“The big problem is that teams and universities use punishment and the punishment is usually light,” said Dr. Abrams. “What’s missing is that no one is doing risk assessments on these athletes and that’s how you determine if they’re likely to do it again and how you treat them to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Dingus said, “I would agree with Dr. Abrams that he needs to be assessed and then have a course of action and treatment based on that assessment, and I don’t know what part of that has been done.”
When it comes to how professional teams and universities handle future events, Dr. Abrams said it’s pretty simple: the NFL and the NCAA need to walk the talk.
“When you say you have zero tolerance for domestic violence or sexual assault, you need to have zero tolerance for those things,” said Dr. Abrams.
The biggest obstacle to the call to walk the talk appears to be the massive amounts of money involved in college and professional sports.
“The NFL didn’t get on the stick about domestic violence until Anheuser-Busch threatened to pull their sponsorships,” said Dingus. “I’m not suggesting that the attitude of the NFL is that domestic violence is ok, I just think things seemed to be driven more by profit than it does anything else.”
“When it comes to these incidents the teams and colleges are making decisions based on business, not morality,” said Dr. Abrams. “The NFL, the NBA, and the NCAA should make these things a business decision by saying, ‘OK if you hire, sign, or recruit someone and they violate the conduct policy then we’re gonna punish you with fines, draft picks and sanctions. Now maybe you’ll give a crap.’”