Football Psychology: Brazil – Blackout!

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Football PsychologyIn the Copa America of 2007, the triumphant Brazilian team, led by Dunga had a mission and a cause. It was this: ‘’We came to rescue the self esteem of the Brazilian worker. Who wakes up in the morning and returns home at night. Whose only satisfaction in life, is seeing Brazil win a football match.’’

According to Dunga this cause was the main reason why his less than exceptional team triumphed over Argentina.

In this World Cup of 2014, it was obvious that this Brazilian team cared deeply about wanting to deliver for their people. So why did their cause not manifest itself in a Maracana Sunday World Cup win?

The very nature of a cause means that the group are playing for something greater than themselves. And so when the group make an emotional connection to the cause, there is a release of power into the group, that makes them feel as if ‘the impossible is possible’. Thus there is an elevation in performance, as the group run on additional fuel, that enhances their will, commitment and desire to succeed.

But having a cause doesn’t automatically mean that performance levels will be enhanced. A cause has to rest upon solid foundations. And this current Brazil team clearly had flawed basics. One of which was leadership.

Luis Felipe Scolari has admitted that he had no idea what caused the team to have a mental blackout mid-way through their semi-final first half. Really, it’s his job to know. His job to recognise the patterns and the details that impact on performance. If he can’t see behind the veil of his team’s behaviour, he should have people around him who can.

If he did, Scolari would recognise that he had no leaders on the pitch, who could hold the players to their responsibilities. In the absence of captain Thiago Silva, Scolari needed to school stand-in David Luiz in the art of leadership under pressure. That means being able to communicate clearly and effectively to people around you. Show coolness and maturity when things are going against you. Maintain a presence that indicates all will be well.

So when Germany’s second goal went in, it was as if all pre-set notions of how to approach the game got wiped out. The desire to win it for their people, became overlaid by the uncomfortable notion that they were about to let their people down. And there was no one in a Brazilian shirt to hold a position of defiance, in the presence of this fear.

Thus scared players began to do their own thing and abandon the team plan and responsibilities. With no one in a position of leadership to turn to, a blind panic set in and spread across the team like a virus. Resistance collapsed as the team were overwhelmed by the sub-conscious recognition of the consequences of failure. Thus the depth of feelings the team loaded into the national anthem, turned into an emotional fog, as the players retreated fearfully inward.

It has been said that Brazilian players will be scarred for life after this 7-1 defeat. But that needn’t be the case. A collective de-brief is critical to help all involved understand the emotional and psychological dynamics of this not-normal event.

And that position of understanding can lead to a shedding of guilt and a deepening of self-awareness. The players can retain empathy with the fans for the pain they experienced in defeat, but not hold onto that pain as emotional baggage. And from the ashes the phoenix can rise, and the spiritual home of football can re-invent itself in the classic Samba style!