Last month I wrote about pressures on sport coaches. I have been thinking about ways to support coaches as they develop and negotiate the competing demands that they face. Yesterday a documentary about the study of baboons in Kenya gave me a great lead.

Given that I have an interest in ecology and ethology (not to mention sociobiology) I am surprised that I have not come across Robert Sapolsky‘s work before now. I should have picked up on his Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers when I wrote about evolutionary biology and social connections.
Robert Saplosky and Lisa Share’s (2004) paper notes that :

Reports exist of transmission of culture in nonhuman primates. We examine this in a troop of savanna baboons studied since 1978. During the mid-1980s, half of the males died from tuberculosis; because of circumstances of the outbreak, it was more aggressive males who died, leaving a cohort of atypically unaggressive survivors. A decade later, these behavioral patterns persisted. Males leave their natal troops at adolescence; by the mid-1990s, no males remained who had resided in the troop a decade before. Thus, critically, the troop’s unique culture was being adopted by new males joining the troop. We describe (a) features of this culture in the behavior of males, including high rates of grooming and affiliation with females and a “relaxed” dominance hierarchy; (b) physiological measures suggesting less stress among low-ranking males; (c) models explaining transmission of this culture; and (d) data testing these models, centered around treatment of transfer males by resident females.

In his Primate’s Memoir, Robert provides rich detail about his work and his study of stress. An article on him in The Edge notes that:

ROBERT SAPOLSKY is a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and of neurology at Stanford’s School of Medicine. He is also a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya. While his primary research, on stress and neurological disease, is in the laboratory, for twenty-three years he has made annual trips to the Serengeti of East Africa to study a population of wild baboons and the relationship between personality and patterns of stress-related disease in these animals.

Robert’s work underscores for me the importance of closely observed behaviour over extended periods of time. The conjunction of his field work with neuroscience is fascinating. It is a great heuristic to explore coach development in the sport world where alpha male behaviour abounds. It is an insight too into how we might mitigate stress through social contact.

Photo Credits
Serengeti in the Mist


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