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The Psychology of The Score
How the scoreboard impacts how we play the game.
Why is a miss in the first minute not scrutinized as heavily as a miss in the last minute?
Where is the SportsCenter discussion about how the team’s one-point loss was because of the lay-up that player missed early on?
Are points somehow worth more towards the end of the game?
Aren’t all missed points, missed points?
Generally, when answering this question, coaches or fans will point to the fact that the amount of time remaining after an early miss allows a team to compensate for the mistake.
But if that’s the case, shouldn’t teams risk everything at the start of the game and gradually decrease their risk tolerance throughout the game?
Of course, I’m being facetious to make a point. But it’s a rather significant point:
The score has a remarkable psychological impact on how we think about (and how we play) our favourite sports.
Whether subconsciously or by design, players play the game differently based on the scoreline. The psychology of the players at any level of sport is influenced considerably by their current standing in the game. You see this in the team “playing not to lose” versus “playing to win.” The clearest path to obtaining the objective shifts, based on the contextual changes in the game.
They’ll take more risks, find extra running ability, or put themselves in harm’s way if it’s late in the game and they’re chasing a winner.
Conversely, I’ve worked with a hockey coach who bemoaned his team’s consistent ability to throw away the game when leading 2-0 or 3-0 in the first period. They played it safe, stopped skating, and were cautious with their physicality.
Scoreboard pressure goes both ways, then. It’s not just a scoreboard deficit that changes the psychology of players and teams — it’s a factor for teams who lead by too much, or take the lead too early.
Psychological Shifts When Winning
Given the relative parity in talent in elite sports, most elite coaches understand that they’re always “in the game.” Whether or not they are winning or losing by 20, it’s unlikely that such a scoreline accurately reflects the true potential of each team.
Yet, when we’re winning by a large margin, the tendency is to go on cruise control. This is human nature. People have evolved to take the path of least resistance - not because they’re cowards, don’t want to work hard, or don’t have the “killer instinct” - but because it’s biologically most efficient.
An early, massive lead sends the signal that it’s okay to take your foot off the gas, to conserve energy, and to just try not to blow the lead. Ironically, it can be more challenging for players to play not to lose than to just keep after the game plan, which is why 20-point comebacks aren’t so uncommon. Even if the team with the initial lead ends up winning the game, the effort it takes to re-engage and finish the game strong can be massively taxing. Overcoming the inertia of playing not to lose is tough.
A confluence of factors contribute to this psychological shift. Early dominance sends a signal to our minds that continued success is likely to be easy, even though the talent of the other team and thus the challenge of the task largely remains unchanged. Our tolerance for foolish risks increases because the consequences diminish. And we’ve already touched on the biological shift toward conserving effort. The end result is a recipe for the other team, if they can overcome the psychological shifts when losing, to stage a heroic comeback.
Psychological Shifts When Losing
Much of the psychology of losing starts when players appraise the task at hand. Is losing by 20 a challenge, something to be overcome with greater effort? Or is it a threat, something that signals that they’re not good enough, and should retreat?
When a team is losing, choosing to view the deficit as a challenge results in increased focus and attention, effort, and a more constructive approach to risk-taking. Teams taking a challenge approach are likely to have a higher sense of team efficacy, or the belief that they can in, in fact, overcome the deficit. And they intuitively appreciate that the score doesn’t reflect their overall capabilities, but instead may be the result of a few bad breaks, poor decisions, or luck.
In contrast, if a team views the deficit as a threat, we’ll see the typical signs of learned helplessness at a collective level. Players will start making foolish plays in an effort to bridge a huge gap, proverbially “swinging for the fences” when simply hitting a single will do. They’ll ask to be taken out of the game. They’ll start fighting. Underlying this dynamic is the belief that the team simply doesn’t have what it takes, and that it would be better to save face than to persist in futility. In short, they quit.
Being Comfortable With Scoreboard Pressure
Recently, I asked a prominent head coach what he admired most about the great teams he’s seen in his career. He said:
“They all have a seasoned ability to find a way to win.”
In effect, they have learned to be comfortable with scoreboard pressure. They know which psychological shift to make — if they shift at all.
The great teams are comfortable being ahead, resolute when teams claw back their early lead and thrive when chasing down a newly-nervous opponent who thought they had them down for the count.
To illustrate, take this example from one of the most famous games ever played:
Not only were the New England Patriots down by an historic 21-3 margin at half-time of Super Bowl LI, but they were playing uncharacteristically poorly. Tom Brady had been mediocre, including having an interception returned for a touchdown. New England’s three points were even somber — with mismanagement meaning they had to kick a field goal as time expired in the second quarter, rather than go for a touchdown.
Rather than change their behaviours because of the scoreline, head coach Bill Belichick turned the scoreboard pressure on its head.
“There was no great speech, no guys arguing, throwing helmets or anything” said tight end Martellus Bennett. Offensive Tackle Nate Solder added, “Bill said that we have to keep doing what we’re doing, play like we know how to play and not think about what happened. They have to score a lot more points to keep us down. We knew we could score enough points to win.”
Down 21-3 in the Super Bowl, Bill Belichick told his team THEY HAVE TO SCORE A LOT MORE POINTS TO KEEP US DOWN!
A challenge approach.
And they responded with increased focus and attention, effort, and a more constructive approach to risk-taking.
New England undoubtedly have a seasoned ability to find a way to win, and there is perhaps no greater example than in Super Bowl LI.
However, that seasoned ability really comes from entrenched psychological principles, reinforced over time, to understand how (or if) to alter their behaviour based on the score.
These are mindsets they’ve learned, which means you can learn them too.
How are you teaching your team to play in various scoreboard situations? Have you thought them through, or are they just “how it’s done”?
How much do you factor in the psychology of the score when designing your training exercises?
What mental skills frameworks can you provide your athletes to help them navigate scoreboard pressure?