The Psychology of Defeat

Did you catch the World Cup semi-final the other day between Germany and Brazil? If you didn’t, you must have heard of Brazil’s historically massive loss against the Germans.

This was the biggest game to date of every one of the players on the Brazilian team’s career: the semi-final on home soil and they lost an agonizing 7-1.

I propose that they lost to such proportions not because they were a terrible team in this series and not because they lacked quality players. They lost because their psychology was destabilized, so they unconsciously found themselves in a losing mode.

How did this happen?

First, they were destabilized by the fact that both their star player and their captain were unable to play this game. This didn’t automatically put them into defeatist mode by any means, but it destabilized the structure and unity of the team. And when it comes to team sports, it doesn’t matter how great and prized the individual players are, it’s how the team performs as a unit and when that unit begins to shift rapidly and unexpectedly, it can shift the psychology of just a few team players, which is enough to bring down the entire unit.

The second and more crucial aspect happened when the Germans scored their second goal early in the game. The first goal was early and it was a blow, but psychologically a team can hold on to hope of recovering as they only have to score one goal to catch up- that’s doable. It was the second goal that sent the team crumbling to their demise. They let that moment of instability crush them and that is what led to the onslaught of three more goals (totalling five) against them within the next few minutes.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

I used to be a competitive swimmer and my coach used to describe when a swimmer that was following the leader quite closely in a nearby lane would begin to catch up, psychologically what would often happen is that the leader would begin to feel their energy being pulled down as the swimmer in second place would catch up and overcome the leader as he or she pulled the energy from the leader in order to get ahead. It’s all psychological because they’re in different lanes, so there is no pulling of energy in a physical sense. But, in the psyche as that person catches up and overtakes you as the leader, they get a sense of being imbued with energy, while you feel like your energy is being sucked away.

This is what happened to Brazil, they allowed their energy to get sapped by the Germans who capitalized on the breakdown of the Brazilian team.

The key is, however, that with the right psychology, this may have been avoided. Artists and athletes (particularly solo athletes) often talk about getting into the zone– a place where they themselves and what they are doing become one. In that zone of complete focus and attention, they thrive and perform at their best. Outside of it, they risk faltering due to distraction. This is akin to the concept of being present- in the zen sense- completely and totally in the moment and in tune with what you are doing. Miraculous things happen in this place.

If the Brazilian team had been able to play as if no goals were scored against them after the second one came, I believe that they may have been able to avoid the massacre that came next.

Each moment is fresh for the one that is present and no matter what prior defeat, she is able to rise up to her potential. But when we allow our minds to focus on our defeats, we are bound to encounter further defeat. Try this: when you’re doing a workout, think of something that totally brings you down- that makes you feel terrible and notice if it sucks the energy out of you.

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