Ball tampering and the brain

Former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was quoted once as saying that he held only the second most important job in Australia. The top job, he said, was captaining the Australian Cricket Team.

Perhaps this is why I, like many others, was absolutely shocked at the charges of ball tampering this week from the Australian Cricket Team in South Africa. I could not believe that our beloved and  respected team were charged with such a crime and that their captain was somehow involved.  I have had a hard time coming to terms with this tragedy.

Growing up with incredible cricket captains like Border, Taylor, Waugh and Ponting, I could certainly see the point the former Prime Minister was making. I looked up to these men as true leaders. Although they had their moments, I witnessed them overcome great challenges and display tremendous character through both victory and defeat.

So how could someone in this position of honour make such a mistake.

I can only assume that it must have been some sort of emotional response to the highly stressful conditions in the current test series and that the team members involved didn’t pause to carefully consider the potentially huge consequences if they got caught. Because if they had, there is no way they would have done what they did. What a brain snap!

This got me thinking about a recent article I read on brain development from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (ACAP).

As teachers and parents we often find it difficult to understand how and why our teenagers can at times make such bad decisions. The ACAP explains that there is a biological reason that contributes to bad decisions being made involving the stages of brain development from childhood right through to adulthood.

Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggression. This region of the brain develops early on in life. However, the frontal cortex, which controls reasoning and helps us to think before we act develops later, maturing well into adulthood.

Pictures of the brain in action show that adolescents’ brains work differently than adults when they make decisions or solve problems. Their actions are guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex.

The article goes on to say that:

Based on the stage of their brain development, adolescents are more likely to:

  • act on impulse
  • misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions
  • get into accidents of all kinds
  • get involved in fights
  • engage in dangerous or risky behaviour

Adolescents are less likely to:

  • think before they act
  • pause to consider the consequences of their actions
  • change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviours

I am by no means calling the Test Captain or any of his players adolescent. But if I had to bet on what part of the brain was in action when they decided to tamper with the ball, I can only conclude that it couldn’t have been the frontal cortex but instead was more likely the amygdala.

These brain differences don’t mean that young people can’t make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. It also doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held to account, just like some of our cricket stars have been this week. But if someone who is as well respected and trusted as the Australian Cricket Captain can fall victim to the biology of the brain, then it does give us a greater understanding of the powers at play inside the minds of our young people.

Sometimes our young people get it right, and sometimes they get it wrong. Occasionally the consequences are long-lasting and have a great impact on their lives and the lives of those around them.

I am grateful to be a part of a community that educates and cares for young people from 3 years old right though to 18. As a community of parents, teachers, support staff, churches and youth leaders we are surrounding our young people with adults who care for them. So that when they make mistakes, and they will, they will be given appropriate consequences, unconditional love, and the grace that comes from knowing we all need forgiveness.