Understand Footy

It's par for the course

The principle of loss aversion in sport was demonstrated during 2009 in a study of 421 professional golfers playing in 230 PGA tournaments.
A University of Pennsylvania study found that when the golfers (including Tiger Woods) putt for birdies, they were less successful than when they hit the identical putts for pars.
This, they concluded, was due to loss aversion.
The golfers’ desire to avoid a bogey – the loss of a shot – was more powerful than their desire for a birdie – a gain.
The golfers played more conservatively when putting for birdies, leaving a greater proportion of those putts short of the hole.
They were more aggressive when putting for pars, however, when a miss would entail the loss of a hole, and no longer left their shots short.
Full study:

Loss Aversion in Golfers

The Loss World

First published in Inside Football
August 2011
By Mick Ellis
whitnall99 monocp
POPULAR opinion has it that football teams are dangerous when they have “nothing to lose” so can play the game like free spirits, unburdened by expectation.
In reality, the opposite is true.
Football teams with nothing to lose are easy-beats.
Teams are most potent when they have everything to lose.
Let’s pause here and imagine it is three-quarter time in the Grand Final ... scores level, the players close to exhaustion, tension extreme, crowd roaring …
Both coaches are exhorting their men to draw on their last reserves of energy and courage. But which speech does the canny coach choose? Is it this:
(a) “Think of the prize. How good it will feel to be a premiership player. All the rewards coming your way – the cup, the money, the lifetime of adulation.”
Or this?
(b) “You men were born for this moment. All year, all your lives, you have worked for this. Your opponents are trying to take away what is rightfully yours. You may never get this chance again. Do not lose this opportunity.”
Basic psychology says the answer is (b).
The coach invokes not what is to gain, but what is at stake to lose.
He is tapping into a principle known as “loss aversion” – that humans find the need to avoid loss more motivating than the desire for gain.
“Loss aversion drives all sport,” say the authors of
Scorecasting – The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won, a book published in the US (2011) exploring the psychology of professional sport.
“Loss aversion affects everything from everyday decisions to athletic performance.”
In everyday life it works like this: suppose a friend gives you $100 then some time later says he has changed his mind and wants it back.
Your reaction is to feel a keen sense of loss. You have already accounted for that $100 as yours and feel aggrieved at losing it.
But what if that friend simply promises you $100, and some time later changes his mind and says you won’t be getting it?
You will feel disappointed, but not aggrieved.
Humans are more driven, and will fight harder, to avoid loss than to seek gain.
Now recall Geelong after the 2009 Grand Final, the Cats having dragged the game out of the fire against team-of-the-year St Kilda in the desperate last minutes of an epic battle.
In post-match interviews, virtually to a man, the Geelong players said they were motivated not by the memories of their 2007 victory over Port Adelaide, but by the desire to avoid the devastation of their 2008 defeat at the hands of Hawthorn.
The Mission – the book by insider journalist Scott Gullan recording Geelong’s 2009 season – notes that while coach Mark Thompson was urging his senior men to win the day, the dominant theme among the players at the three-quarter time huddle was to avoid the pain of 2008.
Matthew Scarlett: “We never want to feel like that again.”
James Kelly: “Remember that feeling in the pit of your stomach when the siren goes and you’re behind. That’s the worst feeling in the world and we aren’t going through that again.”
Cameron Mooney: “We’re not going to
lose this game!”
History records that they prevailed in the most desperate of finishes against a St Kilda team playing its first Grand Final.
Geelong’s then assistant coach Brendan McCartney agrees that the 2008 loss was a big influence on 2009.
“It wasn’t so much during the year because you get into a season and you know you’ve just got to win enough games to make the finals and top four and a home final and all those things,” he said.
“But then when the moment arrived late in that finals series, and I’m not totally sure because only the players could answer, but I think some of that might have kicked in.
“When the moment came the pain of the previous year was a pretty strong reminder that you probably don’t want to go through that again.”
Former Collingwood assistant coach (now Melbourne coach) Mark Neeld, mindful that the emotive pleas of firebrand coaches often seem to have limited value, makes the point that reminding players of what is at stake takes second place to technical aspects of helping players understand where and how the game is being won or lost.
“We’d be along the lines of, this is what they (opposition) are doing, this is how we’re going to attack this, this is how we’ll score,” he said.
Players should be sufficiently motivated from within, hardly needing a coach’s extra needle or reminders, he said.
Having said that, at the St Kilda “wake” on Grand Final night 2009, coach Ross Lyon demanded that the agonisingly close call should burn within the playing group in the same way the 2008 defeat had instilled Geelong’s fierce motivation.

Examples of loss aversion abound in the AFL.
Scorecasting explains, it motivates footballers and teams and changes the course of games.
And in AFL football it’s apparent on several levels.
A dramatic, and common, example of loss aversion at work
during games occurs when two reasonably well-matched teams meet and one gets an early break and kicks out to a lead.
Just when the lead reaches breaking point, the players in the trailing team sense that the game may be lost, and suddenly find some extra desperation and energy.
Their loss aversion is kicking in strongly, and they become more desperate than their opponents.
They scramble one goal back, then another … they peg back the lead, growing all the time in confidence. The “momentum” swings.
What has just happened?
The leading team had started to mentally account for a gain – a win. The natural human response to this feeling is to start to play conservatively, take fewer risks –- to “tighten up”. (This is, incidentally, the phenomenon popularly known as “choking”, when a team begins to play conservatively in anticipation of a gain.)
Simultaneously, the trailing team suddenly faced the prospect of an unexpected loss. Motivation!
The more loss averse they are, the more aggressive and desperate their play. So the game – and usually the scores – quickly start to reflect this change in motivation levels.
OK so far?
Then what happens?
As the scores tighten, the leading team becomes more loss averse itself -- the hundred bucks its players had just mentally put in the bank is about to be wrested off them.
Motivation! They raise their aggression and risk-taking and fight furiously to keep their lead.
How often does it happen that the trailing team simply cannot get that extra goal to take a decisive lead itself?
At this point, the commentators – who have cheered on the comeback because it makes for a better spectacle – remark ruefully that the effort has taken its toll on the chasing team.
Not exactly!
What occurred in fact was that the leading team redoubled its efforts in the face of a threatened loss.

As football games are being played, says Scorecasting, all parties involved -– including fans -– adjust their loss-gain expectations continually.
This explains why the overriding emotion after a close win when you expected a comfortable win is simply hollow relief – at having averted a loss – rather than jubilation at the gain.
Feeding into this principle, of course, is pre-match expectation.
Whether consciously or not, a top team playing a bottom team is already accounting for a win – and the bottom team for a loss.
That will then affect the motivation levels of both parties – which undoubtedly is where a good set of coaches comes in.
AFL coaches instinctively knows that “we expect to win” is a mantra they must repeat until their players really believe it. That’s because it sets up a team for loss aversion.
Scorecasting maintains that loss aversion also affects umpiring – as the officials have similar expectations to the participants – and explains why in all sports the foul count tends to go against the underdogs … but that’s another story!
The more closely you look at football, the more you see loss aversion at play.
After all, plenty of competitive types in the game readily volunteer that they “hate losing”.
Think of the battle for a finals spot between a team just inside the eight and one just outside. Which will have the greater motivation?
Imagine Essendon (eighth) coming up Carlton (an unlucky fifth) in a final this year [2011]. Who are you going to tip now? *
Another example of many from late 2011 was the Lions’ Simon Black admitting the pain of an early-season loss to Gold Coast drove him and his team in the rematch.
“I was hurting a lot from that last game, particularly all those clearance numbers because that’s where I play and have an ownership of that part of the ground,” Black said.

Returning to premiership deciders, though. Consider the vastly different outcomes of the two Grand Finals of 2010 in the light of this discussion.
St Kilda, having lost in harrowing fashion to Geelong in 2009, looked done when it trailed team of the year Collingwood by four goals at half time.
If ever loss aversion could work for a team, this was the moment.
Sure enough, as the Magpies tightened up, the Saints furiously lifted themselves back into the contest and eventually forced a draw.
They actually hit the front, until the desperate, now loss-averse Magpie skipper Nick Maxwell took an aggressive risk and threw himself at a marking contest to begin the play that ended with a game-saving goal.
In the replay, Collingwood, having come so close to a calamitous defeat it coud taste it, now matched the Saints for loss aversion and, being the more talented team, won by a wide margin.
Early in 2011, its spirit subdued by consecutive Grand Final defeats, St Kilda slumped to one win from seven games.
Its 2011 campaign was at breaking point – at which time came a collective realisation in the St Kilda camp of what was at stake to lose.
A team that considered itself worthy of a premiership had not only lost two Grand Finals in agonising fashion, but was also letting a third chance slip away.
Perhaps that big St Kilda contingent listening to the eulogies at former coach Allan Jeans’s funeral, as former players talked of the lifetime bonds between premiership teammates, appreciated what they were losing even more strongly.
Since then the Saints have had a more aggressive edge about their game, more risk-taking flair but also more intensity –- and climbed off the mat to finish in sixth place.
Many commentators noted that St Kilda was playing like a team with the pressure released.
It might have looked that way, but actually the opposite was true. The Saints realised they still had something to lose.

*This scenario did in fact eventuate. Despite a lot of pre-match hype for the Bombers, a seriously loss-averse Carlton (narrow loser of the previous two elimination finals) defeated Essendon in this final by 12 goals.
Footy psychology
How to rate AFL teams
Why form is bunk
Explaining home-ground advantage
How to be an AFL coach
Inside Football magazine