Psychology behind the FIFA Soccer World Cup – what we can learn

July 12, 2018

Author: Dr Karina de Bruin, Managing Director of the JvR Academy

As we are approaching the 2018 FIFA World Cup Soccer finals, it could be interesting to look at whether we can take some lessons from soccer players to senior management in the corporate world, and of course, vice versa.

So far, this year’s World Cup tournament has been marked by huge upsets, leading to shock exits – of which South Korea’s elimination of Germany, and Croatia’s win over Argentina probably are the most remarkable. If Germany went into the tournament as one of the favourites to take the cup home, their disappointment and despondency after losing to South Korea came as no surprise.

Soccer is a game of rollercoaster-ride emotions, for both the players and the spectators. One moment there is jubilation, euphoria and triumph and soon after, there is anticipation, anger and sorrow. What happens next, usually depends on how the individuals and the teams regulate these emotions. Destructive emotions can highjack performance and team relationships. They can lead to impulsive behaviours and prevent anyone from making effective decisions.

Managing emotions
Coping effectively with these emotions means you must have a high level of emotional self-awareness. Emotional self-awareness has to do with recognising your emotions as well as the impact of these emotions on yourself and others. Furthermore, it will help you to identify the triggers of certain emotional and behavioural reactions. The ability to be emotionally self-aware is one of the fundamental building blocks of emotional intelligence.

The concept of emotional intelligence is broadly structured around “managing ourselves effectively” and “managing others effectively”. Seeing that a soccer player shares the pitch with the rest of his (or her) team, the opponents and officials, it would make sense to focus on team and social relationships and how to manage these effectively.

But there is no way that you can manage your relationships with others if you cannot manage yourself well. And managing yourself (your emotions and behaviour) is impossible without knowledge of what is happening inside. The basic principle of self-awareness is somewhat like that of project management you can only manage what you are aware of!

Start in a safe environment
Soccer is an extremely fast-paced game, so trying to focus on emotions while playing, is probably asking too much. Similarly, the corporate world moves very quickly. How can any player or boardroom member increase his or her level of emotional self-awareness while speeding around on the pitch or in the office? It might be a good idea to start working on your self-awareness away from the field or your colleagues, where the competition is less fierce and the stress levels more manageable.

Once you experience self-awareness success in safer environments, the more competitive soccer field or boardroom will provide ample opportunity to practise these skills. Here are a few tips on managing your emotions in stressful situations:

Step 1: Do self-observation and write your observations down in a little notebook. However, simply writing down your experiences will not be enough. You also need to reflect on these experiences by asking yourself thought-provoking questions so that you can develop a deeper level of understanding about yourself. After a while, you will see patterns of emotions, insights and behaviour emerging. The knowledge about yourself can guide you in managing yourself and your relationships more effectively.

Step 2: Ask for feedback from others that know you well and that you trust. Not everything people say about you may be true, but it is worthwhile listening to their views. The fact that someone experiences you as always angry, irritated or tired can be invaluable feedback and, as said previously – what you know, you can manage!

Step 3: Listen to your body. If you continuously have tight shoulders, struggle to sleep or wake up clenching your teeth, your body is trying to tell you something! Listen to this message, because once again, what we know we can manage!

Being able to identify your emotions and regulating them are cornerstone ingredients of emotional intelligence. Losing a match is always disappointing, but researchers have shown that athletes with high levels of emotional intelligence have more positive feelings. And more positive feelings will generally reduce the negative impact of the loss and help the team to face the next opponents with confidence and courage.

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