Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Psychology of Defending a Title

"Defending a title is much more difficult than winning one". One of the great cliches in sport. We hear it from pundits, commentators and column writers each time a team or individual embark on a journey to mirror a success from the previous season but they rarely explain their logic. This article does not aim to defend or attack this common belief but instead discuss the psychology surrounding this pursuit.

Anyone who is or has been involved in sport will appreciate the role of self-confidence in a successful performance; it's one of the key ingredients. The research tells us that there are four main building blocks for developing confidence, with previous experience/success being arguably the most important. There's nothing like doing well the last time for developing confidence. In the case of an athlete or team defending a title, they have experienced the ultimate success during the last occasion that they competed in the respective competition. As a result, you would expect that the winners would experience a heightened confidence level second time round. Logic would dictate that previous winners + increased self-confidence levels = an even more likely chance of winning the competition again. Yet apparently, more often than not, this logical outcome doesnt come to fruition. So why not?

Well let's look at the other side of the coin. It is often said that there is a fine line between confidence and over-confidence, could these increased levels result in a touch of arrogance and, consequently, complacency in the preparation for and during the competition? Pressure too may have a fundamental role. The athlete or team will now be favourite to win the competition and there will be a level of expectation, both internally and externally, to do so. Increased anxiety levels can significantly reduce performance levels, making it difficult to recapture previous winning form. Also, motivation may be significantly affected by an initial win. Having achieved a goal, it may be difficult to maintain identical levels of desire to replicate the achievement. Its human nature.

The idea to write this article came from Andy Murray's shock quarter final exit at the US Open, a tournament he won the previous year. To me, he seemed almost relieved to be out of the competition and admitted that he felt different as defending champion. From what I have heard and read, it seems as though the previous success and his career defining Wimbledon win affected his motivation to train for the US open, which affected his normally meticulous preparation and consequently reduced his self-confidence and increased anxiety to a point where he could not play his best tennis.

A huge amount of research would need to be conducted to either reinforce or dismiss this cliche. It is clear that a number of factors are involved here, however perhaps the most influential factor is one that separates all of us. Personality.

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