I’m not a football fan, in any of its forms. I don’t follow a football (soccer) club. But I do get swept into the excitement of the big international championships that take place every two years: the European Cup and the World Cup. The European Cup for 2012 has started but there’s almost no visible excitement in this football-mad nation (England – here not the other British nations) – so there’s nothing to be swept by. The Jubilee Union Jacks are slowly coming down – but few George Crosses are replacing them. What is happening?
I think that what we are seeing is the playing out of two competing theories of motivation amongst pop-psychologists and sports coaches. First: nothing succeeds like optimism. Second: excessive expectations only bring disappointment.
The first theory has become very fashionable. Various statistical studies, at least in the myth, have shown that high expectations improve performance. So it helps to think that you are going to win. This type of thinking is now deep in the popular culture – as you can see from the silly boasting by contestants in reality TV contests, replacing the formerly very British (or anyway English) modesty. But England football fans have tested this idea to destruction – going into contests with high expectations, and much talk of how we can win. The results (especially the 2010 World Cup) have been dismal.
So the alternative theory gains ground. Teams can be paralysed by the weight of high expectations; they often peform better when they have less to prove. And indeed some of the most memorable England football performances have been when the team has been written off (I still remember beating Germany 5-1 in a qualifying match a decade or so ago). It seems that the county’s fans have taken this idea seriously; keeping mum about the side’s chances, in the hope that this will improve the performance.
Meanwhile I may well miss England’s first match tomorrow – consciousness is so low that somebody is try to arrange a meeting that conflicts with it!