It was shocking for many ‘World Cup watchers’, even the happy 80 million in a rather large northern European country, to witness in the space of 20 minutes, the meltdown of a proud Brazilian national football team in the World Cup semi-final. The favourites eventually bowed out to Germany 7-1, in the worst-ever defeat in any and every record book. So what happened?
In the post-match analysis the football pundits couldn’t agree. Was it great German tactics? Poor Brazilian defending? Brazil’s best players missing? Characteristic German efficiency? Or maybe combinations of all the above?
I think a large part of the answer may have been addressed if the panel of experts had included psychologists, neuro-scientists, physiologists, behavioural biologists and Gary Lineker (as an expert facilitator!).
In recent years, those focussing on human performance in every walk of life, be it sport, business or anything else for that matter, broadly agree that our mental approach (how we think) is a major contributor/predictor of performance. We also know the product of our physiological responses, (how we feel), affects not only what we think but the actual function of thinking itself. In other words, a scrambled physiology due to stress (anxiety, fear of failure etc.) leads to impaired thinking. Literally a brain shutdown somewhere around about the frontal cortex.
It seemed clear on Tuesday night in Belo Horizonte stadium, that after the first goal went in there was a collective brain shutdown as fear and anxiety set in, together with the pressure of the expectancy of 60,000 supporters in the stadium and another 200 million watching on TV. Scrambled physiologies had shut down brains. The Brazilian team could not respond, even if they wanted to, because their ability to think clearly had gone.
So what can be done to prepare for situations like this? The research suggests it’s a mistake to focus solely on the analysis and try and think of a way out of the situation. Training must focus deeper in the human system on managing the signals and controlling emotions that leave the individual in control and alert even under the severe stress. Anyone watching the men’s Wimbledon final on Sunday will have seen two great exponents of this at work. Djokovic and Federer are at the top of their game not only due to their amazing tennis skills but importantly because of their ability to stay cognitively fully-functioning after 4 hours of stress and pressure.
So what can business leaders learn from these sporting anecdotes? I think there is one well-researched thing we do know, which is that the human response to negative emotional states is the same whatever ‘field’ you play on. Our conditioning causes a natural primitive response that bypasses the need for complex thought so we stop thinking to fight or run. We must train ourselves to override that so we stay fully-functioning even when our world seems to fall apart.
A less well-researched area is how this happens collectively. We notice in flocks of starlings or shoals of mackerel positive (and beautiful) entrained collective working and responses. Sports teams sometimes talk about being ‘in the zone’ when everything seems to flow. What seems less well-researched is the negative end of this phenomenon. What happens when collectively our thinking becomes negatively entrained so the whole system (or in this case the Brazilian team) seems not to function? Is there a collective response as well as an individual response that we need to develop?
Back to football and irrespective of tactics or individual performances, I predict the winner of the final on Sunday, whether during the 90 minutes, extra time or penalties, will be the team that are in the strongest control of their emotional state thus keeping their brains and thinking fully switched on!