A very weird thing happened during today’s World Cup game between Uruguay and Italy: Luis Suarez, a forward for the Uruguay national team, appeared to bite Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder. Or, actually, maybe it’s not that weird, given the biter in question: This is the third time in four years that Suarez has been accused of biting another player on the field.
Is Suarez in fact the world’s tallest 2-year-old, and, if not, what could possibly explain his repeated toddler-esque behavior? Adam Naylor, a sports psychology professor at Boston University, gave Science of Us his thoughts on these questions in an email.
So, biting! Speaking as a person who is only mildly interested in sports, is this, ah, relatively common behavior among athletes?
It is certainly not common, but instances of bizarre behavior such as this do occur periodically at the highest levels of sport; the most famous example, of course, is Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield's ear. And Suarez seems to have a bit of a habit of this!
What do we know in general about athlete aggression?
When the ball is in play, emotions drive athlete behavior much more than rational thought. Intense emotions can lead to incredible performances, but they can also lead to total boneheadedness. Frustration in particular is known to lead to aggression.
But why biting? It’s behavior we associate with toddlers, not adults — not to mention adults who also happen to be world-class professional soccer players. Do you have any thoughts on what might make one player bite another player, as opposed to, say, punching him?
Certainly this is some kind of impulse-control issue. Ironically, the more we try to control our impulses under stress, the tougher it gets. So my initial thought is something this odd actually could be a result of his increased efforts at emotional control. It’s easier to remember that something like punching is unacceptable, but without another well-developed way to manage stress, some sort of odd emotional release is going to occur.
Is there anything that can be done to manage Suarez’s behavior, especially considering that this is his third biting incident since 2010?
I always believe there is something that can be done to develop positive emotional responses to challenge — if the athlete is genuinely interested in changing. It's fairly easy to be a good sport away from the game, but considering the emotional investment required for competition, acting like a sportsman on the field can be far more challenging.
This conversation has been lightly edited.