The meaning of winning and losing

“We should make it clear to most people that success is the exception, that human beings only sometimes triumph. Success is deforming: it relaxes, it deceives, it makes us worse, it helps us fall too much in love with ourselves. In contrast, failure is formative: it makes us stable, brings us closer to our beliefs, makes us return to consistency. Let’s be clear that we compete to win, and I do this work because I want to win when I compete. But if I did not distinguish what is really formative from what is secondary, I would be making a huge mistake.”

(Marcelo Bielsa)

These concepts are useful for each of us to acquire. It is necessary to have the awareness that we struggle to win, knowing that we may lose. This idea should never prevent us from trying our best and that we only learn from our mistakes.

How often do we think this way?

Women and football fandom

Football has been largely the domain of men throughout much of its history. Stacey Pope University of Durham, has conducted a research on sexism and misogyny in men’s football, with the aim to grow the game, significantly increasing attendances and interest. It is the right action to take, both in terms of equality, diversity and inclusion, and financially.

From the report

The ‘feminization’ or ‘opening up’ of more opportunities for women to become fans over the past three decades has not automatically led to greater gender equality. Recent research led by Durham University has shown that misogyny among men football fans remains very common (Pope et al. 2022). The findings were based on a survey of 1,950 men fans on UK football fan message boards. The results show that those expressing hostile, sexist or misogynistic attitudes were by far the most dominant group. This suggests a backlash against advances in gender equality. The study identified three different types of men fans.

Men with openly misogynistic attitudes made up 68% of respondents. Men in this group saw women’s sport as inferior to men’s sport, particularly in relation to football. Some suggested that women should not participate in sport at all – or if they did, it should be ‘feminine’ sports such as athletics, rather than football.

Men with covertly misogynistic attitudes made up 8% of fans. This group would express progressive attitudes in public, but in more private moments revealed misogynistic views. Men in this group would adapt what they said, depending on the social situation or who they were with.

Men with progressive attitudes accounted for 24% of respondents. They expressed more gender- equal attitudes. They showed strong support for equality in media coverage of women’s sport. Many said that the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup marked a positive turning point in terms of the representation of women’s sport. The media was seen as having a responsibility to more fully promote women’s sport.

In order to create an environment that is safe, welcoming and inclusive for women, this researchbriefing paper has identified the following recommendations:

  1. Introduce a mechanism to identify, report, respond to and remedy sexism and misogyny in football.
  2. Redesign stadia to create women friendly environments.
  3. Undertake further research to monitor the effectiveness of recommendations 1 and 2 and identify the best future mechanisms to drive forward change, in consultation with women fans.

A forgotten rule: put people first

Often young explain away defeats in terms of lack of ability, declaring that the opponent was stronger. In my experience with them I frequently encounter such assessments, especially from those who invest heavily in sports between the ages of 14-18.

We know from Seligman and Dweck’s 30 years of research that these attributions are pervasive and damage the person’s self-confidence in the long run. These kinds of explanations are based on the belief that if the other is stronger, it means I am not good enough to deal with him or her. Other times the explanations for defeat lie in thinking that the other person was lucky.

I am convinced that the work with them, and in any case with young, is to help them acquire a performance appraisal that has as its goal the development of the person and not the increase of pessimism toward oneself, with all the negative psychological implications that this entails.

This negative mindset has been learned from parents, teachers or coaches who are too result-centered and much less performance development-centered.

  • When training is focused on task-focused, mistakes are interpreted as learning opportunities.
  • When training is focused predominantly on the outcome, errors show the inability and slowness to learn.

One must, first, evaluate the effort and then the result. And not vice versa. I am talking about the ABC’s of teaching, but if we meet many young athletes who do not think in this way, it means, at least in my opinion, that they have not been coached with this approach.

Accepting positive stress

If we start from the premise that “life is a wonderful thing but it could also turn into hell if one is not careful,” then it quickly becomes clear why stress, in turn, can be equally wonderful or fatal. It is difficult situations that push people to work hard to overcome them and get the results they set out to achieve. Let’s think about the first date with a girl or a guy, how did it feel, was it quiet, no for sure. Was one thinking will he come or won’t he come, will I be clumsy? It is only by putting yourself in that stressful situation that you were able to experience that feeling of uncertainty and then pleasure. It is from the challenges (which are the stressors) that the response or positive stress arises. By challenges one should not only mean the extreme ones of Olympic champions or those related to one’s professional accomplishment, both of which require long-term work of continuous skill acquisition and improvement.

Challenge is also more than that. Even seemingly simple challenges, such as finding time during the week to do something you enjoy (a walk, going to the movies, meeting with friends). In this case, the challenge is to do something you enjoy, for the sake of doing it, to achieve immediate goals, to feel pleasure or to have fun. In this sense, as long ago as many years ago Michael Argyle (1987), a scholar of the psychology of happiness, stated that leisure outside of work is one of the best predictors of well-being, and that enjoyment positively influences couple relationships and social life, which are also key indices of well-being. What is proposed, then, is to develop an active lifestyle, synonymous with a life not only crushed by professional and family duties but in which there is room for activities that promote pleasure and satisfaction. It is an invitation to people to prefer experiences to passivity brought about by comforts (“Why should I go out, toil, when I can be so comfortable on the couch watching TV”), to do rather than to have (“but if I buy myself that electronic contraption that makes me slim while sitting, why should I go on a diet and go to the gym?”).

These ideas are not new!!! Benjamin Franklin, an 18th-century scientist and politician, argued that teaching a young man to shave and keep his razor sharp would contribute far more to his happiness than giving him 1,000 guineas to squander. Money would have left only remorse. Whereas knowing how to shave frees a man from the barber’s harassment, his sometimes dirty fingers, offensive breaths and unsharp razors. Adam Smith, economist and philosopher, also in the same century said that it was a pleasure to stand and observe how a fine watch was made, even if the extreme accuracy in its construction was of no practical use.

Taking on this new way of thinking is about taking care of oneself; it means paying attention not so much to the grandeur of the changes we might achieve after a year and at the cost of great sacrifice. Generally, setting long-term goals indicates more of a person’s aspiration to achieve a certain ambitious result, but precisely because one is at the same time aware of how much effort one will have to put into achieving it can be perceived as unattainable. Conversely, reasoning about weekly goals that are perceived as attainable will motivate one to start devoting time to something he or she enjoys.

Anxiety and thinking

Today in class I was asked how a coach can teach young people he or she coaches how to deal with competition anxiety. In this regard I quote a few paragraphs from my book Coping with Stress.

Thinking plays an essential role in the establishment of the anxiety response. In fact, in order to develop behaviors that can be defined as anxious, it is not only sufficient to look at alterations of a physiological nature. An even relevant increase in heart rate can occur from a rather wide range of situations such as running stairs, carrying excessive weight, walking at a fast pace, and many others. These conditions relate to psychological states in which an individual might at most feel tired or fatigued but certainly would not call himself or herself anxious. One’s heart rate can also be accelerated at other times, such as evaluative situations (the school test, the college exam, a job interview, a sports performance, a new professional responsibility); in those instants while one is aware of the alteration in one’s heart rate it is possible to have two types of thoughts:

  1. confident – “This is how I feel every time I do well, my heart is sending me energy,”
  2. not confident – “My heart is in my throat, it’s all rumbling inside me, I’m not getting it right anymore, I will definitely make a mistake.”

It is thus shown that it is thoughts that largely determine whether the physiological reactions one feels are favoring or hindering performance. It is thus thoughts that guide the interpretation of physical sensations, so identical physiological conditions can be experienced as adequate to provide optimal performance despite the fact that, on the surface, they may appear to be hindering. This pointing out is particularly important to understand and especially to remember in the moments that matter, since it gives us the ability to guide our actions through the development of thoughts that we can consciously construct ourselves. In sports of excellence this aspect is particularly evident, as it is certainly not possible to remain calm and serene before an Olympic final, especially if one can win. Athletes know that the anxiety they feel is positive, it is pure energy that they are feeling in those and that tells them, “Come on, the whole body is with you, get busy, go and do what you can do: do your best.” It is precisely from them that we should learn to feel the stress, to feel the fear, experiencing it as a demonstration that we are about to do something that is very important to us, and if it is important, how can you not have your heart in your throat?

What distinguishes those who will then provide an outstanding performance is their ability to handle their pre-race anxiety in positive terms, translating it into energy that will drive them to enhance their skills, because they have learned how to use them in a positive way In these situations the winning athlete does not let his or her emotions dominate him or her, because if that were to happen he or she would be paralyzed by the fear of failure and the responsibility of having to provide a great performance at all costs. Here is what some great champions have said in this regard.

“You are strong in the head if you can remain calm and have fun even when things are not going well, and if you can never lose confidence in yourself and in teamwork.”(Valentino Rossi, driver, 7-time world champion)

“It depends on the characters, nervous tension used to eat me up. I was losing three kilos in the race: the more I ate, the more weight I dropped. And at night I wouldn’t sleep, my eyes were wide open. I was a lit pile, ready to jump from too much tension.” (Mark Spitz, swimmer, 7 gold medals at the Munich ’72 Olympics) (from E. Audisio, Hackett and the club of the elect, La Repubblica, March 22, 2007).

“That day in Los Angeles I cried out that I wanted mommy, I wanted someone to cradle me in their arms, I wanted to be considered for the first time a fragile, tender, not bomb-proof creature. Yes I was the one who dominated myself, the one who sought strong emotions by blasting them in the right way. But in an instant I realized that all that stress had burned me up inside, that by dint of living always on the edge convinced that with my very last energies I would pull myself up, I had consumed everything and eroded even that small personal reserve one keeps for special occasions.” (Sara Simeoni, high jump, 3 medals at the ’76, ’80 and ’84 Olympics) (from E. Audisio, Quanti modi per dire mi arrendi, La Repubblica, July 13, 1987).

The awareness that even champions can be anxious before an important competition should be helpful to all people. Sometimes people are inclined to think that winners are cold, calculating individuals who do not feel the same emotions as ordinary people and that this condition of theirs is a gift they carry with them from birth and have inherited from someone in their family. Their sporting achievements become memorable feats and so some become myths, in which the tale becomes legend and surpasses the reality of the facts. Instead, even champions have struggled to rise to this role, and as a great writer like Ernest Hemingway rightly reiterated, genius is 10 percent talent and 90 percent sweat.

This means that the management of one’s emotions is a skill that can be improved, and that psychological condition we call anxiety, stress or excessive tension that arises from situations that are not objectively dangerous is not in itself bad, because even those who deliver performance at the highest level, such as sports champions, can feel very anxious before competition. The difference between people is, therefore, in the ability to positively emerge from this psychological state. Further confirmation comes from the remarkable popularity of relaxation techniques over the past 100 years; it is a practical demonstration of how anxious people can learn to reduce these reactions of theirs and carry out a satisfying daily life.

It is well known that learning to relax involves learning to influence certain physiological functions (heart and respiratory rates and visceral functions) and muscle tension, in parallel with a gradual mental relaxation. In this area, it is no coincidence that one of the most popular techniques, autogenic training devised by Schultz in the early years of the xx century, consists of relaxation training that the individual generates for himself. Training that requires daily application of at least 10 consecutive minutes for several months. This approach reveals that the psychological state called relaxation is a condition that can be achieved voluntarily through an activity that is absolutely analogous to that which each person has carried out whenever he or she has learned something new be it a cognitive activity as it was in school for math and Italian or a motor or sports activity.

The secret lies in the willingness to want to learn, following a correct method, and repetition for a sufficient period of time to develop the level of skill one intends to achieve or that is necessary to successfully overcome certain psychological conditions, such as anxiety before a personally important event.



The problems of young athletes

These days I have written relatively less than usual because I have been asking myself questions that I have had difficulty answering.

They are these, and they affect boys and girls indistinctly:

  • In tennis, many people like to shoot strong, which might even be fine if the ball most of the time fell on the court, in reality the opposite happens. Why is it so difficult to get this idea out of their heads?
  • Toni Nadal said that an important difference between Rafa and today’s young people is that Rafa when he improved maintained that level without going back, while today this does not happen: you improve, you play a few matches well and then you go back. I experience the same situation myself. How come?
  • Why is it that many athletes having reached an important world ranking become afraid of the effort they have to make to improve it and almost prefer to go backwards in ranking?
  • What drives an athlete in opposition sports (tennis, table tennis, fencing), in which one has to go through multiple rounds of competition to at least make it to the semifinals or finals to settle for an inferior result and stop playing their best?
  • Why do some athletes explain a defeat by saying that the opponent was stronger? As if being strong was an absolute category that leaves no chance?
  • And never mind those who attribute their failures to technical problems; if that were true why do they play or compete instead of quitting and waiting to improve technique?

Cohesion and shared goals

I want to continue the reasoning of yesterday’s blog on the importance of the relationship among soccer players, emphasizing that this is the basis of cohesion. In fact, the interpretation of events by group members, especially the evaluation of negative ones, is influenced by the degree of cohesion. If the group shows a poor level of cohesion, individual players tend to blame other team members for what happened. On the other hand, if, on the other hand, the team is united the players tend to be more objective in their evaluations and more readily admit their share of responsibility.

It is clear from what has been illustrated that team performance is more effective if there is agreement on goals and the means to achieve them. This finding is also present in the very definition of cohesion, understood as a dynamic process that reflects a group’s tendency to stick together and remain united in pursuit of its goals. One of the most frequent problems that arise is that sometimes the goals the team has set for itself do not match those chosen by the club. In sports it happens, for example, that players’ goals may diverge from those of their club, and coaches find themselves in the position of having to find effective ways of communicating to reconcile these differing needs.

It is indeed necessary for the members of a team to identify with the goals of the sports club in order to provide optimal performance as a team. To approach this problem, reference can be made to the system used 70 years ago by Kurt Lewin during World War II and reported by Forsith [1983] in a study of group change dynamics. Because of the lack of veal, the National Research Council asked Lewin to develop a strategy to change the eating habits of the population. A short period of time was given to persuade housewives to serve quickly prepared but less desirable dishes for families. Lewin devised a strategy based on two different approaches.

In the first, groups of housewives attended conferences in which the nutritional benefits of the new diet were explained to them within a discourse that included appeals to patriotism. In this situation, no form of interaction between the participants was provided. Instead, in the second approach, moments of discussion on the same topics addressed by the lecture were introduced. Participants were stimulated to agree on at least one issue.

Lewin later verified that only 3 percent of the housewives who had participated in the first situation had changed their eating habits, in contrast this figure rose to 32 percent among those who had participated in the interactive situation. Lewin verified the validity of this interactive group approach in relation to other problem situations as well, concluding that it is easier to change individuals when they are united as a group than to act on them individually.

From these results, therefore, it can be concluded that although various approaches can be used to convince individuals of the goodness of the chosen goals, an approach centered on group enhancement will certainly be very effective. In this way, a positive relationship is built between individual motivation and commitment, leading to effective performance and a consequent positive perception of the value of individual contribution to collective work.

Teams need to place more value on teamwork

The fluctuating results of the Serie A championship in these first two rounds of the restart after the World Cup, Inter beat Napoli but then drew against Monza, as well as Milan’s elimination from the Coppa Italia, highlight how difficult it is to give continuity to performances and how this is more of a problem affecting the collective and not so much the individual player. It is easier to criticize the individual player or one team unit while it is more difficult to analyze the results in terms of team play. Even among nonsports teams, such as hospital teams, it has been found that those that work to improve collaboration on specific team goals are 2.8 times more likely to achieve high performance than teams that do not.

This is because teams are identifiable units of work, composed of multiple people with several unique characteristics who continually interact with each other.

The team characteristics include:

  • dynamic social interactions with meaningful interdependencies,
  • shared and valued goals,
  • a discrete duration of time,
  • distributed skills
  • clearly assigned roles and responsibilities.

Thus, task interdependence among players if practiced constructively fosters the relationship between teamwork and performance, demonstrating the importance of teamwork.

At this regard, it finds confirmation in the saying that choosing the 11 best players for each role does not necessarily make the best team.


Decisive goals are scored in the end of the match

These days there is a talk about the reasons why more goals are being scored in the end of the matches, and often right in the extra minutes. This seems to be a novelty brought about by having lengthened match duration. In reality, this phenomenon has always been present in soccer. As early as 40 years ago, Desmond Morris, famous anthropologist and soccer enthusiast, wrote in his book “The Soccer Tribe” that when he analyzed the 9,000 goals scored between April 1978 and November 1980 in English league and cup matches, the frequency of goals increased as time went on. There were about 5,000 that were scored in the second half, of which 1,800 were scored in the last 15 minutes of the match, showing overall that the probability of scoring increased as the match progressed.

Therefore, if the winning mentality must be maintained throughout the entire match, it seems equally clear that there are key moments during the 90 minutes + recovery when a particularly effective level of focus is needed and that a team must train to avoid drops in concentration and confidence.

To test the validity of the results noted by Morris more than 10 years ago I recorded for three consecutive years from 2006 to 2009 when goals were being scored not only in Serie A but also in Spain, England and Holland. The results confirmed this trend. The overall trend in Serie A goals in the three seasons shows an upward trend from the initial stage of the game to the final stage. It can be seen that the smallest number of goals is scored in the first half hour of the game (12 percent), after that the percentage grows keeping constant from the 31st to the 75th minutes (about 17 percent) and then peaks in the last 15 minutes (24.5 percent).

Similar results are found in the three European leagues. In the first 15 minutes about 10% of the goals are scored, which increases in the following period, varying between 14% and 15.7%. Between the 31st and 75th minutes there are variations between 15% and 18%, while as in the Italian league the greatest number of goals are scored in the last 15 minutes, varying between 24% and 26%.

Moreover, the last period of the game is the one in which the decisive goals are scored whatever the final result with 44.2% of goals. The other period with the highest frequency of goals is the one immediately preceding with 24.6%. The last half hour of the match is the most important in terms of the number of goals scored accounting for 68.8% of the goals. Only 16.3% of the decisive goals are scored in the first half, this figure is very close to the percentage of goals scored in the first 15 minutes of the second half (14.7%).

It seems clear to me that increasing the playing time after the 90th minute represents an additional opportunity to score decisive goals. Increasing even by 5 minutes the average duration of the second half, compared to the last 15 minutes of the match, means increasing by a quarter the time available for teams to score the goals that can determine the final result.

ISSP Master Class on mental health in community sport

ISSP Master Class – Session #1

At The Starting Line: Promoting and Protecting Mental Health in Community Sport

Date: Thursday, February 9, 2023
Speaker: Stewart Vella, PhD
University of Wollongong
Length of Session: 75 minutes (45 minute lecture, 30 minute Q&A)
Time: 1:00 pm UTC
(Toronto 8:00 am, Sao Paulo 10:00 am, London 1:00 pm, Paris 2:00 pm, Beijing 9:00 pm, Tokyo 10:00 pm)

Program Overview
The protection and promotion of mental health in non-elite sport settings has become a hot topic worldwide. However, in many respects, we are barely at the starting line. This presentation will explore the ways and means through which mental health can be addressed in community sport settings – including mental health programs and mental health guidelines.

About The Speaker
Dr. Stewart Vella is the Director of the Global Alliance for Mental Health and Sport at the University of Wollongong – Australia. He is the most published researcher in the world on the topic of mental health and sport. Vella’s work spans mental health programs and guidelines, and psychological safety with a focus on community sport. His “Ahead of the Game” program is being scaled globally including as the official program of the Rugby League World Cup.

Program Format
Attendees can participate in an ISSP Master Class session right from their office or home. Registrants will be provided the Zoom link upon registration to access the presentation right on the web in real time. If you are unable to watch the session live, a recording will be provided afterward to all registrants.

Cost (in USD)