It unfolds in slow motion, though it’s all over in a split-second. The ball floats unfettered toward the goal as we try to absorb the inevitable outcome. Before we can completely come to grips with what just happened our opposition erupts in celebration. There are no "do-overs," no further chances to erase the defeat. It is known by many names: buzzer beater, golden goal, Hail Mary, last-minute goal. It’s not a film filled with the bucolic images of stalwart losers and gracious victors as a musical score swells and the camera reveals close-ups of tough competitors who have a begrudging appreciation of one another’s efforts with life lessons well-learned. We’ve all been at the receiving end of such disappointment. It leaves us feeling hollow, angry, and even depressed. As Robbie said after a recent golden-goal loss: "I hate losing way more than I love winning." Our entire self-worth has been challenged in an instant.
It’s never fun to lose, but it’s less fun to lose in such a calamitous sudden manner. You can’t run the ball quickly back to the center line; there is no hope; the game is simply over. The ramifications can be disastrous. Players have come to blows over these losses. Coaches have even attacked players that they felt competed unfairly. Referees charge off the field knowing full well that they will often be the first recipients of the crowd’s disfavor. Dejected and stunned, players, spectators and coaches have salt rubbed in their wounds by the boundless joy of the opposition. As a result, several unfortunate consequences can occur.
There can be physiological effects on fans. P.C. Bernhardt and others studied 21 male fans watching their team in a World Cup game where their team lost. The study showed that the fans’ testosterone levels dropped dramatically following the loss resulting in depression, lethargy and, ironically, aggression. These fans actually suffered from long-term mood changes lasting up to two weeks following the event. This vicarious identification with the defeat of a favorite team happens all too frequently. Fans see opposing fans as real enemies that must be conquered to right a wrong. When they experience physiological effects, they often are less in control of their emotions. In addition to testosterone, a sudden loss can lead to a precipitous drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter related to emotional well-being. Participants can experience depression, a loss of self-worth and anxiety, which can affect future sports performance. It’s not surprising that incidents involving a loss of self-control increase following any loss, but worsen with a sudden, unexpected loss.
Research also documents the contagion of these physiological effects even if a participant doesn’t experience any physiologic changes. As a member of a group, either a team or a fan base, we have shared expectations and outcomes. This "social psychology" has been well-documented. "These sports-triggered responses have their root in human evolution," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. ''We join groups to enhance our self-esteem and decrease isolation. It's a way to connect . . . it's tribal," Miller said. He goes on to point out that our "fight or flight" response that comes from the anticipation and anxiety participants feel has its roots in evolution. Len Zaichkowsky, head of the sports psychology program at Boston University, notes that one fan’s behavior can give other fans license to act out in ways they would normally never do. He has measured the breathing rates, blood pressure, and sweating of fans in close games and after a distasteful defeat and found that there are similar changes among the group.
Most importantly, feelings of anger can absolutely crop up after a sudden loss. This anger can be directed toward the opposing team, a particular member of the opposing team, the referees, opposing fans, our own team, a member of our team and our coach. When we experience a devastating loss, we have feelings of frustration, indignity and animosity. Some of us can channel it away quickly without any self-destructive behaviors. But many of us may act out. It could be as benign as smacking our fist into our palm or letting loose a curse word, but for others the anger is more deep-seated. We are looking for revenge. We might goad someone into offending us so we feel vindicated in taking physical action, bark at our kids or our spouse, actually openly attack the object of our revenge, or turn the anger inward participating in self-destructive behaviors.
What does this all mean for youth soccer? While we expect such complex physiological and psychological effects in adults, they actually can extend down to our youngest players. Recently, the Kentucky High School Sports Association banned the traditional after-game handshake ritual because there were too many confrontations. Lest we think this behavior happens only in post-pubescent students, take note of players as young as six spitting in their palms before shaking the hands of opponents, or slapping the hands, or even punching an opposing player in the chest. I’ve seen these actions all in teams under the age of 11. We encourage competitiveness, so it shouldn’t be surprising that kids, who have less well-developed brains and impulse centers, can’t turn the competitiveness off at the sound of a final whistle. Add to the equation a sudden loss and the feelings can be exponentially increased. As parents, we need to model the best behavior we can in these situations even as we feel the same sting. We should encourage our kids to express their feelings in the safety of no judgment and support. Acknowledging for our kids that we feel the same anger and frustration lets them know that we can have those emotions without acting out on them. Despite what we may have witnessed or felt, the opposition hasn’t personally insulted us even as we feel insulted. It’s a game with outcomes that sometimes go our way and other times don’t. Letting our kids hear this philosophy consistently helps them internalize it. We especially need to avoid laying blame because that justifies feelings of injury and obstruction. We give our "enemy" a face.
Finally, we need to move on. The longer we dwell on any particularly distasteful and sudden loss, the more we feed our detrimental physiological and psychological reactions. Find a distraction for your young players. Most kids can drop their frustration in the face of a post-game treat or a movie. Go walk on the beach, throw a Frisbee or visit a museum, anything that you know your child would love to do. Make it a rule that no one can talk about the game during these activities. Hopefully by the time you finish, the bad feelings will be finished too. Keep your opinions to yourself — don’t denigrate any player, coach or ref. If your child has to vent, let him or her do so, but don’t jump in with any agreement or argument. Simply let your child know that you understand and sympathize with their concerns and further let him or her know that it’s time to focus on the next game because this chapter has already been written. It’s okay to have anger, but expressing it with verbal barbs, or worse, with physical behaviors, does nothing to resolve the issues and may even bring unwanted consequences. Life will be filled with drivers who cut us off, rude sales clerks, game losses, incompetent supervisors, test failures and other frustrations that need to be handled with calm, positive solutions, and restraint.
Last week, Robbie’s college team ended their unbeaten streak with a golden goal loss at home. Worse, it was to a team in their league, so disrupted their run to winning the league. After every home game we parents serve the boys dinner, so we weren’t sure what we would face. Fortunately, the lads showed up happy to have warm food to fill their stomachs and a positive attitude about moving forward. I attribute that to the coaches and some great parenting over the years. Only one young man stormed off without participating in the meal. Hopefully he’ll find a way to cool down and move past this loss. We have another game in a few days, so the team needs to concentrate on winning that game and we fans need to bring our most positive support to the bleachers. All anyone can do is their best. In the long term there are far more important life events. That knowledge doesn’t completely remove the sting, but it can be the way to deal with defeat.