Review: Athletes and anger: When the passion boils over

New York Knicks star Amare Stoudemire scored 20 points in an NBA playoff win Sunday, but the bandage on his left hand reminded fans that he'd recently made headlines in quite a different way: smashing the glass of a fire extinguisher case after losing in Miami six days earlier.

What's with this behavior? How can professionals get so upset they harm themselves? Sports psychologists say it can happen in the high-pressure world of winning and losing, with people who identify themselves with their performance and, frankly, are supposed to be aggressive.

When you get angry, your heart beats faster and blood pressure rises. In men, testosterone levels can rise. Some research shows heightened activity in the left side of the brain. With all that going on, things can happen. Stoudemire cut his hand after the loss last week when he swung his arm backward and hit the glass on the case.

Athletes commit a lot of their time, energy and identity to their sport, he said. So when they lose or don't come through in the clutch, "it actually affects their self-perception of who they are," he said. "The anger is an expression of extreme frustration, because the way they define themselves has been negatively influenced."

In fact, physical off-the-field expressions of frustration are probably more acceptable in sports than in an ordinary office, said Jonathan F. Katz, a sports psychologist in New York City who works with amateur, collegiate professional athletes and teams. If somebody did in an office what Stoudemire did, "it would probably be looked at much more negatively," he said.

Despite the differences between elite athletes and ordinary folks, it would be "a little bit hypocritical" to look at incidents like Stoudemire's and conclude that pro athletes are undisciplined and prone to problems in managing their anger, says Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist in Fords, N.J., who wrote a book on handling anger in sports.