The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Football and Learned Helplessness

How Losing Becomes a Habit

In his recent post "Deconstructing Consumer Confidence" my fellow blogger Dan Ariely put up a pretty fascinating post about the relationship between learned helplessness and the recent 40-year low in consumer confidence. While Arliey's points about American spending habits are insightful, I'm interested in applying his ideas to a entirely different and, at least from my perspective, far more important topic: football.

I'm not going to go far into learned helplessness here (you can click here and read Dan's blog if you want the full experimental rundown), but the very short version is it's a psychological condition in which a human or animal has learned to behave helplessly in a particular situation even when they have the power to change their situation.

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In football the best example of this phenomena may be the "Superbowl Hangover." The hangover has been especially prevalent in recent years. Going back to 1993, of the thirteen teams that have made it to the big game only to lose the big game, only three actually made it back to the playoffs the following year and of those three none advanced beyond their divisional round.

Now, I don't think the 1994 Bills or the 1995 Chargers were suffering the hangover per say (only because the hangover had yet to become the media darling it has since become), but for any of these teams that came afterward, it seems more than likely that this form of learned helplessness was playing a part.

In other words, because football is such a high intensity game and because most of the teams in the NFL are so evenly matched (this isn't just my opinion, then entire free agency scheme was dreamed up to help establish far greater parity), it seems like once things start going badly for a post-Superbowl loser, the team in question may adopt a stance of learned helplessness based less around the facts of the games and more around the fact that the Superbowl hangover has become a large part of contemporary football mentality.

Maybe an even better example of this idea would be the Oklahoma Sooners. They've appeared in four BCS bowl games in the past five years and have lost all four, including title games against both LSU and USC.

In interviews about this topic, coach Bob Stoops has told reporters "there isn't any one good answer. In the end, too, I think it's obvious: you're playing another championship team and if you're not at your best, you're not going to fare too well."

And while Stoops may have been correct for the first one or two of those losses, it seems safe to assume that the memory of those earlier losses may have come into play in the follow two defeats-with the outcome of that memory being none other than a sense of learned helplessness and another defeat.




Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.


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