Understand Footy

How to motivate players

(ie. how to be an effective AFL coach)
Very little is new in footy psychology [although this may change if the Loss Aversion Institute has its way :-)]
Even if they don’t understand the psychology behind them – which on all evidence to date they don’t – most AFL coaches know these do’s and dont’s instinctively, through their own bitter experience. But at the risk of appearing presumptuous, here is our guide to the fundamental motivation and demotivation of footballers and teams.


Elite sportspeople have a strong competitive streak that already makes them loss averse. Most, if not all, already “hate losing”. The best way to motivate them, short and long term, is by strengthening that loss aversion, in effect making them more competitive.
“We’ve got to be competitive first,” you often hear the rookie coach say as he takes over at a struggling club. (Damien Hardwick at Richmond springs to mind. Ditto Mark Neeld at Melbourne ... “We want to be hard to play against.”)
It is important to instill strong loss aversion in a playing squad. This team will fight harder to avert a loss, therefore win more games, and then become proud of their status individually and collectively. Now you have a “winning culture”. How do you achieve it, though?
The Swans under Paul Roos adopted the theme of “Blood” brothers, evoking the spirit of the 1940s South Melbourne “Bloods”, to encapsulate a never-say-die team ethos. The psychology here is that by losing you are letting down not only your teammates but betraying a club ethos.
It worked for Sydney – it took the Swans to a premiership in 2005.
When he arrived at St Kilda from Sydney, Ross Lyon wanted a similar strategy. He came up with “Saints Footy”, which had not a historical hook (Lyon tried but couldn’t find one, unsurprising given the Saints’ history) but a set of standards to which the players subscribed and could be measured against.
With it he produced a team renowned for its hard-edged defence, and very hard to beat even when lacking the skill and flair of its opposition. You can make a case that the Saints have been the most loss-averse AFL team of the past five years.
At Collingwood, Mick Malthouse referred a great deal to “teamsmanship”. This is a psychology essential to success as (a) it’s a team sport after all, and (b) it sets up loss aversion – give your all or you will lose the respect of the team (your comrades and supporters). The Magpies make a virtue of playing for “the army” – including their entire club and supporters in the idea of the “team”. It’s not so much “win it for the supporters” but “don’t let down this entire army of people you are representing”. It’s also worth noting that part of the fabulous Magpie loss aversion under Malthouse revolved around the coach himself, and his positioning as a “father figure” with his players, who having gained his love and faith give everything to not let him down. A coach with a forceful enough personality, like Malthouse, can generate this over a period of time with a playing group. It actually reprises the foundation parent-child relationship that fosters loss averse competitors in the first place.
(And when you think about it, is also a great argument for employing older mentors, rather than players just out of the game and therefore only half a generation older than those they are coaching.)

AFL coaches and players NEVER concede that a football game is unwinnable. The second they do, they cannot win, because a loss becomes an acceptable outcome. Even if it’s the bottom team playing the top, coaches and players always make statements like:
“We believe we can win every game.”
“We believe if we play at our best we can match any team.”
They may not realise it in these terms, but this is setting up loss aversion.

Why do coaches spend the entire week leading in to a game “talking up” their opponents, almost to the point of paranoia? Answer: because they must do everything to guard against complacency, otherwise known as gain anticipation. This is a surprisingly difficult thing to do. If the entire football world anticipates a certain result, so too will the participants – the players and significantly also the officials – if only at a subconscious level. How often does a football match NOT pan out the way the world expects? Very often, right? (Otherwise the bookies would be out of business.) Why is that? It’s because of the interplay of pre-match expectations with the ebb and flow of loss aversion during the game.
See Footy myths for more on this.

The flipside of loss aversion is gain anticipation. It is the single biggest threat to any team, any time. A good coach guards against gain anticipation by talking up the opposition (see above) but also by having his players UNDERSTAND THE GAME. When leading, it is human nature to want to protect your gain and to lose the aggression and risk-taking that most footballers train for most of the time. Teams should also train for recognising and countering gain anticipation. The Crows for a period in the late noughties pioneered what became known as “tempo football” – essentially playing keepings off. This strategy turned out to be vulnerable to a hard-pressing opposition, but it was a largely successful attempt to counter an opposition run-on. Over to you, coaches.

The coach as father figure: see “
How to I get loss averse?”

Dermott Brereton, the extrovert former Hawthorn “five-time day, five-time night” premiership player, asked once about the psychology of Grand Final day, revealed that he repeatedly told himself that he was born to be on the big stage, that his destiny was to play in Grand Finals, and he therefore embraced the pressure and expectation of the occasion and could rise above it to play some of his greatest games.
Why did this thinking work for him? Simply because it set up his loss aversion. If you lack the confidence in your own ability, or think perhaps the opposition is a better team, equally or more deserving of victory, then you may hope you will win, and you may give every ounce of your energy, but you will lack that loss aversion motivation that, when it comes to the crunch, determines Grand Finals. If, however, you believe that it’s your right to win the game, and the opposition is trying to take something that is rightfully yours, then your loss aversion is maximised.
At Collingwood under Mick Malthouse, the recruiting department weighted its drafting deliberations towards players who had performed well in grand finals at junior levels. Malthouse often said how he favoured players who handled big occasions, a logical approach since the AFL’s biggest club plays in front of big crowds and under great performance pressure most weeks. But that “big stage” trait also reveals footballers who have competitive natures and innate loss aversion.
This is why it is so important for coaches to instill “belief” in players who may be ultimately lacking in confidence in their own, or the team’s, ability to go all the way. See an excellent article on this trait in cricketers by Darren Berry (
“Mental toughness sorts the best from the rest”.)


Try to put “pressure” on an opponent in a belief that they will crack or choke. It’s a rookie coach’s mistake, made most recently by Brett Ratten before Carlton’s 2011 semi final against West Coast. This tactic only ever backfires. In fact, we can’t think of a single occasion when it’s worked. Remember Mark Williams, coaching Port Adelaide as the underdog against Geelong in the 2007 Grand Final, talking it up in Grand Final week, saying how all the pressure was on the Cats because they were the favourites? Bad, bad mistake. Never remind the opposition of what they have to lose, and how much you will rub their noses in it when they do. The only effect is to raise their loss aversion and increase the size of your own hiding. It also alerts the opposition that you don’t think you can win the game on your merits, that you need to try some cheap mind games. BA-BOW! Never works! (Ratten was lucky that 2011 final wasn’t a hiding, but he was right about being just short of the mark. See also “Rating teams”)

“No matter what happens this week, I am proud of my players and it’s been a great effort to get this far,” says the coach on the eve of an elimination final. “We have exceeded all expectations. It’s a tribute to this playing group,
blah blah...”
That is the statement of a man about to coach a team out of the finals.
Does anyone recall the comment of Joseph Gutnick, then president of Melbourne, before the 2000 Grand Final against all-conquering Essendon? A long time ago, we know, but he said the same thing: what a great season the Demons had enjoyed, what a great achievement it was to reach a Grand FInal, and how proud he was of the players and coaches, win or lose.
The message to the Melbourne players in that statement is that a loss is acceptable.
Very, very bad psychology!
The loss averse competitor’s attitude in such circumstances is far simpler: “We haven’t won anything yet.” or “There’s no prize for second.”
Bet your house that is what was motivating the Essendon camp that same week, bearing in mind that Essendon had lost the previous season’s preliminary final in heartbreaking circumstances, a loss that drove the Bombers’ entire 2000 campaign in which they lost one game for the year and were so dominant they prompted talk of dynasties.
In this light, Gutnick’s comments were exactly the wrong thing to say.
And we all know how it turned out! (For those with fading memories, in a 10-goal cakewalk to Essendon.)
Examples from the 2011 season included Brett Ratten and Carlton, having broken the drought and “got the monkey off the back” by winning their first final, then saying as much before their second final (which they promptly lost).
And their conqueror, West Coast coach John Worsfold, a mere one week later accepting the accolades of the football world for his wooden spoon-to-preliminary-final climb, praising his troops for as much, and in the process delivering the subtle message that a preliminary final loss would still amount to a success.
You will
never win a premiership with a message like that!
If the Eagles were
any chance at the title, the message had to be: “Yes, we’ve had some success but all that work and effort will be wasted unless we win this week. A loss now is an unacceptable waste of all that hard work.”

To declare that your club’s aim is to make the finals or the top four – “and anything can happen from there” – is all very well. However, it is announcing to your men and to the footy world at large that that is the extent of your ambition for the season, and the extent of your belief in the ability of your players. In fact the phrase “anything can happen from there” is code for:
we might make the finals but don’t think we can win it. If you set ceilings for your expectations, that is as far as you will go. Better to declare that the premiership is your aim and that anything less is a “loss”.

What motivates people more: (a) the attraction of winning and all that goes with it, or (b) the imperative to “not lose”?
After meditating on that question for a minute, if your answer is (a), meditate for another minute.
If your answer is still (a), repeat the above instruction until your answer is (b).
In the 2011 Grand FInal, what would have been Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse’s best line?
We think it was: “Leon Davis and Chris Tarrant deserve this premiership. They deserve to be revered as premiership players. Do not let Geelong take that away. Do not let them down.”
Yes, it’s more stick than carrot, but in human nature, it’s what works.

The win is all that matters. The margin does not. Coaches seem to think that in any given game they should beat the opposition by “x” goals and are disappointed when the final scores don’t reflect that theoretical margin between the teams. It is patently silly to think that there is a fixed margin between two teams on any given day and then to be happy or disappointed accordingly. In every game, a range of results is possible, depending on momentum swings. (That’s why margin betting is so flukey, by the way.) But the winning coach being dirty at his players for a narrow margin when a bigger one was possible is utterly pointless, unless he can find ways to circumvent human nature ... see Rating teams.

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