Manchester United and the psychology of a losing streak. Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham

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Manchester United and the psychology of a losing streak

Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham

IMG_2352With a recent League Cup defeat, Manchester United have lost three games in a row, for the first time since 2001, accomplishing this by identical 2-1 losses.

There is a psychological theory explaining losing and winning streaks in sports, which might account for why losing streaks in sports can be long – as enduring as some extended winning streaks.

One recent study into the science of winning and losing streaks; ‘Understanding baseball team standings and streaks’ by C. Sire and S. Redner, found the record for a pure winning streak in baseball since 1901 is 21 games, set by the Chicago Cubs in 1935 in a 154-game season. The study, published in ‘The European Physical Journal’, also found the longest losing streak since 1901 in baseball is 23 matches, achieved by the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies in the National League.

Roger Vergin, an academic from the University of Pennsylvania, author of ‘Winning Streaks in Sports and the Misperception of Momentum’, argues in beginning to win, perhaps the added confidence, expectation of future wins and increased aspiration level, in themselves make future victory more likely. Equally, losing may lead to lowered self-confidence, worse expectations and reduced aspirations, all of which might sap competitiveness and render future defeats more likely.

‘Psychological Momentum’ according to this study published in the ‘Journal of Sport Behavior’, might explain why a shooter making several consecutive shots in a basketball game is said to have ‘the hot hand’, while in baseball, ‘hitting streaks’ and ‘batting slumps’ appear to extend over many matches.

Athletes and sportsmen appear to strongly believe in momentum and the powerful psychology of streaks – winning causes momentum and momentum causes more winning. If the same is true of losing then, this should cause a chill in any United supporter.

But Vergin’s study sounded a note of caution, after analysing basketball and baseball seasons, finding that winning and losing streaks may be more in the mind of the naturally anxious and superstitious sports fan and athlete. Winning and losing streaks can arise purely by chance and will naturally appear in any random sequence of defeats and victories.

Vergin also pointed out that an effect referred to as ‘fat cat’ syndrome could also apply, which might be relevant to Manchester United. Successful teams could become complacent, over-confident, and as a result ease up on effort, so losing momentum, explaining why all winning streaks eventually come to an end.  Maybe we are witnessing the end of a long winning streak, in the case of Manchester United.

But another recent study entitled ‘Testosterone, and Winning and Losing in Human Competition’ has more ominous implications for any team currently sliding down a losing streak. The study looked at Testosterone levels in tennis players, because higher testosterone levels in sportsmen are linked to winning and competitiveness.

The researchers, Alan Booth, Greg Shelley, Allan Mazur, Gerry Tharp and Roger Kittok found as players move through a season, there appear to be carry-over effects on Testosterone from one match to the next. It looks as if the Testosterone of consistent winners rise higher with each win, and that of consistent losers continues to drop. This effect, the authors argue in this study published in the journal ‘Hormones and Behavior’, could provide biological foundations for winning and losing streaks.

The Testosterone change following a win or loss may have long term effects by altering Testosterone in subsequent contests. Persistently heightened Testosterone would add momentum to a winning streak while depressed Testosterone would characterize a slump. The results of this study are consistent with this.

Players whose Testosterone rose right after a win had heightened pre-match Testosterone levels in their next matches, whereas players whose Testosterone fell right after a loss, had decreased pre-match levels at the next match.

This feedback loop may account for winning and losing “streaks” because each win reinforces a high Testosterone level which in turn reinforces further competitiveness. Conversely, each loss produces a drop in Testosterone. But why should evolution create a system where losing a match leads to lower testosterone, which then makes it even more likely you will lose again?

Sport is the modern analogy for war and battle; it has replaced physical fighting. In the past facing and battling an enemy was what raised your Testosterone. If you kept losing such contests, it would make sense to withdraw, as continuing to engage could be lethal. So lowered Testosterone serves a positive evolutionary function, it  inhibits losers from engaging in further potentially damaging competition. Because in the past continuing to lose could lead to death. Better to steer clear of a superior adversary, retreat and lick your wounds.

The very latest summary of what we know on this subject is entitled ‘Testosterone level and its relationship with outcome of sporting activity’ and this paper points out that Testosterone increases muscle mass, while reducing body fat, thus enhancing athletic performance.  Natascia Brondino,Niccolo` Lanati, Steven Giudici, Marisa Arpesella, Federico Roncarolo and Matteo Vandoni report that Testosterone influences brain activity, increasing vigilance, visuo-spatial abilities, self-confidence, risk preference and aggressive behaviour.

Their review about to be published in the ‘Journal of Men’s Health’ finds that Testosterone also appears to support resilience from stress and reduces fear. Higher Testosterone levels seem to be associated with dominant behaviour and the pursuit of dominant status. The  authors, based at the University of Pavia Italy and the University of Montreal, conclude, that losing a competition seems to decrease Testosterone levels, eliciting more submissive behaviour and a diminished tendency to fight, thus increasing the chances of losing future competitions.

If United fall out of the hunt for any trophies this season, it could be evolutionary theory explains their losing streak.

The best teams and athletes optimistically believe they can win because of variables under their control, like their work rate, their approach to the game, and their training. Sir Alex Ferguson was a past master of psychological management – he tended publicly to attribute his team’s success to internal factors such as their talent, while losses were put down to external factors beyond their control – referees and malfunctioning Football Association clocks.

Emphasising the losing streak reveals just how great a manager Ferguson was, is in fact psychologically disastrous for Manchester United right now. It turns the very psychological trick Ferguson tended to use, be adept about who you blame for losses, against United.

The cult of personality surrounding a great leader or manager is a double-edged sword.  A useful weapon while they remain in charge – it can become an own goal when they depart.

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