When Uruguayan soccer player Luis Suarez bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini during a World Cup Match with Italy this week, many people wondered how this could happen. Don’t only toddlers have biting problems?
Apparently not. But, could the reasons a professional athlete resorts to biting be the same reasons a 2-year-old opts for such behavior?
According to Dr. Gene Beresin, Executive Director of Massachusetts General Hospital Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, your toddler might be biting you as the result of:
1. Teething: “When toddlers are teething, there is a tendency to chew and their gums hurt.” (Suarez likely isn’t teething.)
2. They get “wound up and excited,” or playful (The World Cup is pretty exciting.)
3. Aggression (Soccer can be a pretty physical sport, and with so much at stake, it’s bound to bring out some aggression.)
Who is victimized?
According to Elizabeth Verdick, author of the children’s book “Teeth Are Not for Biting,” toddlers bite whoever they are spending a lot of time with. “Parents are often the recipient of it, so that’s often when they are holding a child, but when we are talking about childcare situations, when kids are playing in close proximity, frustration tends to arise because they are grabbing toys, bumping into each other, and things are going to happen.”
(In professional sports, athletes spend a lot of time with other athletes. At least Suarez didn’t bite a teammate. Or better yet, a ref.)
How common is this?
The American Psychological Association reports that “between a third and a half of all toddlers in day care are bitten by another child.”
According to Dr. Beresin, “adult biting is weird” and “way off the charts” and it should not be compared to the behavior of toddlers. But Dr. Adam Naylor, a Boston University sports psychologist told New York Magazine that this week’s incident, while rare, isn’t at all unprecedented.
“It is certainly not common, but instances of bizarre behavior such as this do occur periodically at the highest levels of sport.”
Naylor also told New York that intense emotions can lead to “total boneheadedness” and “aggression.” Where have we heard this before? Oh, right, with toddlers.
Though Suarez has emerged as the most recent professional-athlete-turned-serial-biter (this is the third time he’s faced punishment for gnashing an opponent,) he certainly isn’t alone.
Remember when heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson bit off a hunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear in a 1997 rematch?
Or what about in 1983 when a basketball game turned toothy: An Atlanta Hawks player named Tree Rollins bit the finger of the Celtics’ Danny Ainge down to the tendon. Ouch.
What to do?
Dr. Beresin had some suggestions for how to prevent toddlers from biting. Some of these techniques might be effective for professional athletes, too.
1. “Give them a teething ring, something to chew on besides a human being.” (How about an athletic mouthguard? Close enough.)
2. “If the child is old enough, you can put the child in a time-out.” (Penalties in professional sports are essentially time-outs for physically talented adults.)
3. “They can use words, draw a picture...Eventually, as the child gets older, they will realize they can talk it out.” (Using words might be tricky at the World Cup due to language barriers. Maybe some crayons for players to express themselves while they’re sitting on the bench?)
Toddlers usually outgrow their biting habit by age 3. For Suarez, only time will tell.