Understand Footy

Footy mythology

There are many myths in AFL. We’re going to start compiling them on this page. Contributions are most welcome! If you’ve got a myth to suggest, submit it here!

Myth #1: Wet weather brings top teams back to the pack
Actually, the reverse is true. Adverse conditions require more skill of players. The most skilful teams perform best in these circumstances. Yes, at times the scores may be low – and thus have the appearance that the gap is closer – but the reality is that less skilled teams need more pristine conditions to be a chance (other things being equal). When it’s wet, skill prevails. It can be a different story with wind, however. Nothing wrecks a game of footy like wind. It does bring lesser skilled teams into the game. You can bet Hawthorn would like the 2012 Grand Final again on a bright, windless afternoon!

Myth #2: Punters should follow football “form”.
This myth says that it’s possible to assess the likely outcome of a coming football match by comparing the recent “form” for the teams. Forget about it! It’s highly misleading. Just because a team is on a winning streak, they are no more likely to win the next week as a result. It is futile trying to compare the form of teams that have played in incomparable circumstances the previous week(s). (See
Form is bunkum and Rating teams).

Myth #3: Teams are dangerous when they have “nothing to lose”.
This entire site is devoted to debunking this myth. If a team really has nothing to lose, it will. Nothing surer. Never get sucked into tipping or punting on teams already satisfied with their lot but that might have a “free hit” against a higher-ranked opponent, such as sometimes happens around finals time. Show us a team with “nothing to lose” and we’ll show you one that cannot win. In order to win games of professional football, you must first have loss aversion. Anything less and you’re a goner. More here.

Myth #4: Teams sometimes don’t “come to play”.
You often hear coaches say after a defeat their team did not “come to play”. And to be fair, often that does appear to be the case – an entire team simply appears lethargic, lacks spark and is unable to respond effectively to an “up and about” opposition. How is this possible in the age of professionalism? Is it not ridiculous to think that
all 22 players will have consciously decided that they can’t be bothered, or that they are not “ready to play” against an opponent their coaches have been talking up all week? Of course it’s ridiculous. There must be something else going on. What happens is that the team is subconsciously anticipating a win against a lesser opponent, in which case loss aversion gives way to gain protection and the team’s play is then conservative and short on risk-taking and energy. A lesser team can often get the “jump” on a better team because of this. It then takes a three to four-goal deficit (the rubber band effect) before the better team is jolted into action by the sudden prospect of a loss. Anticipating a gain when playing lesser opposition is hard to avoid, and a good coach knows this. That’s why all AFL coaches do spend the entire week leading in to a game talking up the opposition! It’s interesting that the general effect of that talk on fans (“yeah, right, he’s using a lot of mayonnaise”) is so often mirrored by his players. They might listen and even repeat the message but don’t necessarily believe it deep down. Note also that the opposite phenomenon to anticipating a win is anticipating a loss – thinking you cannot win a game against a superior opponent. That also undermines your loss aversion. (Which is why the coach that week will be repeating: “We believe we are competitive against anyone,” ... even when he doesn’t really believe that.)

Myth #5: Struggling teams have “forgotten how to win”.
Absolute baloney. Forgotten how to win? That idiotic statement you often hear from commentators is akin to saying specialist footballers have forgotten how the game is actually played. You win by scoring more than your opposition. Hard to forget that! For struggling teams, the problem is not that they’ve “forgotten”, it’s that they are lacking the
belief that they are good enough to win. Therefore they have insufficient loss aversion. Put another way, they have lost their competitiveness. When it comes to the crunch in games – when the rubber band stretches to breaking point – they lack a fundamental belief that they are capable of defeating their opposition. It’s either that or (very rarely) when the players don’t care enough, such as occurs when a coach “loses” his players (which is what happened at Melbourne about halfway through 2011 when the disgruntled Demons players were thrashed by 30 goals at Geelong, an event that understandably led to the sacking of coach Dean Bailey). So to sum up, struggling teams do not “forget how to win” but they do lose faith in their ability to do so, and that lack of confidence tells against opponents with a higher opinion of themselves, and thus greater loss aversion.

Myth #6: You’ve got to use your “momentum” while you have it
Momentum – a buzzword in footy – is presently the most overrated and misunderstood concept in the game. Actually momentum is loss aversion in action. Coaches seem to love to talk about “taking advantage” of having the momentum, but they are misreading the game. The period of play when a team has “momentum” is simply that period when the players’ motivation is heightened by loss aversion (normally when they are trailing). Those players have lifted their desperation levels and are taking more risks against their opponents, who are unconsciously easing off in both those areas. But if the team with “momentum” then kick the goals and gets to the lead, that motivation ebbs away – and the opposition’s lifts. So it’s kicking the goals that actually drains your “momentum”. Then the “momentum” swings – the opposition will have it back. But if you miss your opportunities, your loss aversion-fired motivation continues to run high and you continue to dominate the game with aggressive risk-taking. Think of those high-energy Collingwood teams of the Malthouse era that would dominate play, forcing turnovers and forcing the ball forward through sheer willpower but could not finish effectively, racking up big tallies of behinds and keeping their opponents in touch (ie., maintaining the prospect of a loss). It was exhausting to watch, but the Magpies maintained their high intensity because they were missing the goals. (Here was a big tick to Malthouse for his ability to cultivate his players’ loss aversion – ie, their competitiveness – but a cross for his indirect game style that was not conducive to goal scoring). So bottom line is, forget about the excuse that we didn’t take advantage of the momentum when it was our turn –– the best team almost always wins out in the end.

Myth #7: Missed early goals cost us
Baloney. Goals early in the game are largely immaterial to the result. Goals right at the end of a close game obviously are! Those officials and commentators who say individual decisions or incidents are rarely match deciding are completely correct. Here at the Institute we are sick and tired of the now trite line about how poor kicking for goal cost a team victory. All that the early scoring does is add to the motivation of the competing teams – positively or negatively. A fired-up team can often get a three to five-goal start but if the teams are anywhere near a competitive match, the “momentum” then swings and the trailing team comes back. You see this pattern play out in football time after time, after time. Individual incidents in the game – missed shots, controversial free kicks – are not important and rarely if ever decide the outcome, unless they happen in the dying minutes too late for the trailing team to respond.

Myth #8: “The effort of coming back expended too much energy.”
You often hear this from coaches when their team has been jumped early, rallies late in the game, perhaps even hits the front, before the superior team reasserts its dominance and pulls clear. This is a very common game pattern in AFL – perhaps THE most common. It works like this: superior team gets out to a lead but once it feels comfortably in front starts to anticipate a “gain” – the win – and play conservatively. The trailing team, stung by the prospect of a loss, lifts its intensity and fights back (i.e. gets “momentum” as it starts to score) maybe even hitting the front. Suddenly faced with the prospect of a loss, the superior team lifts its intensity to match and, having the greater talent, re-establishes its superiority and wins the game. This pattern plays out game after game, week after week in all professional sport. So the ultimate defeat is not due to the effort of reining in the lead taking energy out of the players – that is simply a cop-out and a flawed reading of a game. (If anything, it should be the other way around, as chasing and having goals scored against you is more energy sapping and deflating than the adrenalin-high of getting a run-on and scoring). Richmond in 2012 has been a classic example of this. It lost to Essendon this way, coming back from seven goals down to hit the front with 10 minutes to play before conceding several goals to lose the game. Already this season it has lost games to Geelong and West Coast in identical fashion.The coach says he is sick of “honourable” defeats, but adds that the game was lost early and the effort of making up the seven-goal deficit told at the end. Yes he’s right that the difference between the teams was apparent early – when all things were equal, the Bombers were vastly superior – but the Tigers lost because when it came to the crunch in the final quarter, they lacked not the energy but the ability and ultimately the belief to win. One further point: Richmond has been unlucky in the sense that in all of these contests it drew level or hit the front
too early in the last quarter. The superior opposition had ample time to respond – and did. Any number of examples are out there (think Essendon on Anzac Day – trailed Collingwood by three to four goals – the classic “rubber band” margin – made a charge in the last quarter but hit the front with almost three minutes still left in the game ... adequate time for Collingwood to respond). The only way the inferior team can win these games is to hit the front in the last minute or so, so the superior team does not have time to respond. A perfect example was Port Adelaide’s upset win, by one kick, against North Melbourne. Port in 2012 is clearly not as good a team as North Melbourne, but the Kangaroos were five goals up and playing like a team protecting a gain – while Port was powered by loss aversion adrenalin and stormed at them. Port hit the front with 44 seconds left and withstood a final Kangaroo onslaught out of the centre. That game had a range of possible results, the range being from Port by a kick to North by eight goals. The Port by a kick result could happen only the way it did – in a last-minute snatch and grab. The Kangaroos were stiff, but that’s how footy works. North coach Brad Scott said the result was utterly inexplicable. Wrong. A few days later he had decided that it was due to six mistakes that led directly to Port goals. Right on one level, but wrong if he thinks that explains the result. We hang out for the day we hear a coach at his press conference say, “I have to work on our loss aversion!”

Got a footy myth to suggest? Submit it here!