This morning’s online Telegraph ran with comments from US Swimmer Ryan Lochte that Team GB’s swimmers were “too individually focused” and that they should have hidden their disappointment for the sake of the team (thanks to @pullbuoy for pointing it out).
Apparently, Nick Gillingham, a former Olympic medallist for Great Britain said otherwise, that Team GB weren’t emotional enough (not yet verified).
There are a couple of questions to consider:
What is right for the individual, and what is right for the team.
First, I thought that Team GB’s swimmers went out of their way to stay positive in interviews, at least early in the meet, by focusing on the support of the crowd rather then their own disappointment. There were some particularly teary interviews, notably Adlington and Halsall, but these were late in the week, once all was pretty much done. However, Ryan Lochte was there and perhaps saw things that TV audiences didn’t.
Secondly, in the intensity of the Aquatics centre, it was always going to be difficult to be unemotional, so perhaps it is better to look at what emotional states were in play.
Motivation and Emotion – Mastery and Sympathy
Much of my work uses a particular framework called Reversal Theory (e.g. Apter, 2002) that explains human experience by connecting motivational states with emotions.
Rather than explain the whole theory, because as a ‘general theory’ there is a lot to it, I’d like to focus on one pair of states – mastery and sympathy. In the mastery state we are concerned with power and control (which can be for self or others) and it is where competitiveness, toughness and personal responsibility lie. Emotionally, it is our source of pride (as well as modesty, humiliation and shame).
In the sympathy state we are concerned with care and compassion (again for self or others) and this can extend to self-pity, but it is also the source of social support, which is important in sport. Emotionally it can include resentment, gratitude, virtue and guilt.
I think that we saw a lot of ‘sympathy state’ responses from Team GB’s swimmers this week. Gratitude from those that did well, but a lot of guilt. “Sorry” has been quite a common word.
The problem is this: Most elite sports performance comes from the mastery state. We all spend time in all states, but at the point of competition, you pretty much want to feel in control, competitive and confident. Perhaps the tone was set a little too ‘sympathetic’. Not too emotional, not too disappointed, but a little sorry for ourselves and for our supporters. I’ll reiterate, that’s based on limited information, but it’s a working hypothesis.
If my hypothesis is correct, that Team GB got a little stuck in ‘sympathy’ mode, what would I have done about it?
I’d have looked to break the cycle. I don’t think that it is necessarily inappropriate to respond emotionally to disappointment as an individual, but that’s really something that the team has to decide. Balance is important. It should have its own ground rules, if you like. Do you suck it up and deal with it privately or do you reach out to your team mates for support?
Either way, if I thought that the team was getting a little too stuck in sympathy mode I’d have called a team meeting. I’d brief leaders within the team, such as the head coach and/or captain (I believe we had a number of swimmers in a ‘leadership group’) and try to break the cycle.
Changing focus – Rebelliousness
When you change between two states in pair, it is called a Reversal (hence the name of the theory). So, moving between Mastery and Sympathy would be reversals. However, you can also bring another states altogether into focus. That’s what I would have done, I think, and I would have used the Rebellious state (which is paired with, and oppositional to, the Conformist state – following written and unwritten rules). The Rebellious state is about freedom, but is can, as the name suggest, be a bit more spiky than that an includes defiance and anger. The tone that I would have like to have set is a defiant one of, “we’re not taking this lying down”, because it a) takes our focus away from expectations, which I think were the big issue all along and b) because getting a little bit angry can then help us to reconnect with that competitiveness, that toughness that drives the mastery state.
So there you have it. I don’t disagree entirely with either Ryan Lochte or Nick Gillingham. I think that the ‘tone’ of the team does need to be managed, but I also think there’s room for emotion too.
Apter, M.J. (Ed) (2002). Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory. American Psychological Association.