YOU ONLY WIN WHEN YOU’RE SINGING

I’ve always applied a simple two-step rule to any article.

  1. Write a good article (by good I mean vaguely interesting and, at the very least, readable)
  2. If I can’t do that, at least let’s try to make it humorous in some way

But what if the topic doesn’t quite ft in either box? What if you don’t know if the people reading it will think ‘WTF?’ or even stop after a few paragraphs? Or what if, no matter how hard you try, it’s not really a laughing matter?

Two external factors contributed to me choosing to write this one now. Last week, at an EFL event, I mentioned it as part of a presentation – slightly in jest – but realised afterwards that it’s worthy of more than a throwaway line.

Secondly, for the last few days I’ve been reading (sort of, as it’s an audiobook) The Men On Magic Carpets by Ed Hawkins; an exploration of super-powers in humans through sport. It’s not anywhere near as occult-ish as that makes it sound, but it’s not your run-of-the-mill sports book either.

In it, several people refused to talk openly to the investigative journalist/author for that very reason. What they are describing – or not describing as is the case some of the time – is a subject that gets strange looks at best in the typical ‘locker room’. The focus is mainly on US sport although Hawkins is very much British, in his background, outlook and personality.

The people he speaks to in the book use language that is just not – or certainly wasn’t – used in the macho-world of American football, baseball, ice hockey or basketball. There is/was a win-at-all-costs mentality that ebbed into everything from training drills to team talks to media interviews. Coaches have to be grab-you-by-the-balls tough because anything else isn’t tolerated by the media and especially by the franchise owners. Or it wasn’t.

The book talks about ‘long bodies’ and being ‘present and centred’ and at times is referring to those Men Who Stare At Goats but they are just a few of the many phrases and ways to describe what is essentially another perspective; one where love and trust, freedom of expression and the ability to adopt a trance-like state allows players to slow down time, see moves before they happen and, for want of better terminology on my part, perform at a ‘different level’.

Getting Warmer

It’s not new or new-age. Experiments were going on during the Cold War, in the US and Soviet Union, and there are countless examples albeit told in dark rooms and by people who are preaching to the converted. Outwardly, there is still a fear that it will be dismissed as mumbo-jumbo that is as likely to get a player or coach into some kind of institution than it is to the Super Bowl.

The book focuses on some coaches and players who, despite the reluctance to talk, are either founding thinkers or converts. One is Pete Carroll, the oldest coach currently working in the NFL and who has found fame as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, leading the franchise to Super Bowl success in 2013, after also taking the USC to the National College Championship (one of only three coaches to do both). One of Carroll’s legacies will be the Legend of Boom – the nickname for the defensive line-up in six consecutive seasons of success for the Seahawks between 2011 and 2018.

But it wasn’t so much the super-powers of the coaches or players that caught my attention or found me wanting to write this article. It was more the chapters that focused on the fans; one part in particular that really resonated and also chimed with my presentation. Let me try to explain.

First the presentation. In it, I showed some footage from a match in The Netherlands that I’d attended recently (and will describe later), drawing conclusions based on the way the crowd behaved to what the teams did on the pitch. I said – half-joking but not really – that I’d love to do proper research into it, because I believe it can’t be coincidental. I even made a half-arsed request for funding for the research but as yet, there haven’t been any takers.

Elementary

The book’s chapter – read after the EFL event – on this expanded my thinking. Pete Carroll and his cohorts had conducted some experiments. An earlier chapter had told of a section of a baseball crowd altering the performance of the players (positively and negatively) through their power of thought and chanting, but the later chapters went much further.

They made a direct link between the power of the crowd and the outcomes on the field. It got a bit technical but the main point – which seems obvious, but I don’t think that means it’s either widely accepted or used – was that the more the crowd projected positive thoughts and ‘good vibes’ the more this transferred to the player performance. It created, they said, a kind of cosmic energy field.

The appreciation and enjoyment of the crowd directly correlated with the way the players played. In the experiments, they reckoned that they could be put in an ‘optimal state’ where their reaction time was 37 milliseconds faster – imagine a baseball, pitched at 90mph, slowing down so it felt much less than that as it came at you, and you’ll hopefully visualise what this might look like.

A player performing better because the crowd are proactively supporting him or her? No shit, Sherlock?

So, if it is that obvious, why aren’t teams channelling it properly? In fact, why aren’t teams invincible at home? The football stats in England actually show a steady increase of away team victories.

This statistic alone makes perfect sense. Think about it….we live in a time where we demand to be entertained. A home crowd become almost expectant, like in Roman gladiatorial times, as they wait to see what’s on offer before giving it the thumbs up or thumbs down.

How many times do you hear a fan say ‘I love going to away games’ or ‘I only go to away games’ because they are so much more fun, and the atmosphere is so much better? Is the positive energy being transferred to the away players more than those of the home team?

Whiteout

I said I’d come back to the Dutch game but first another game in the same year, 2018. Let’s call it Exhibit A.

I won’t mention names – it wouldn’t be fair – but I went to a game here in the UK recently to assess the fan experience. The stadium, I recall, was uninviting and unwelcoming, even an hour or two before kick-off and I got a funny look from staff in the shop for daring to take a picture on my phone.

As we approached kick-off I sensed an overwhelming feeling of apathy. When the teams emerged, there were a few boos and whistles – I see a lot of football and very seldom does a home team get booed ONTO the pitch at the start – from some and deafening silence from most of the others.

The team looked nervous and edgy. They played that way too; conceding early and again before half-time when they were properly booed by everyone as they trudged off.

A storm arrived at half-time. Heavy snow made events on the pitch almost invisible, you simply couldn’t see a thing and the match must have come perilously close to being abandoned. If the fans couldn’t see the pitch, then presumably the players couldn’t see the crowd. Through the blizzard, I’m told that the home team scored two goals to draw the game. I tried to verify this on TV later, but the snow made it inconclusive. It didn’t mean so much at the time.

Going Dutch

Exhibit B took place just before Christmas and I will name this one. I was assessing an Eredivisie game in Almelo, a smallish, laid back town in the mid-East of the country; about twenty-five kilometres from the border with Germany.

The stadium was new and invitingly warm, as were the people, despite persistent drizzle and low temperatures for the mid-afternoon kick-off. The stands were mostly full well before then and there was plenty of noise. The players went to the fans after the warm up to thanks them; creating this unbreakable bond (which I’d also witnessed in the Danish Superliga, where we also work).

The noise intensified as the start of the game approached and a song, clearly dedicated to the town and it’s folk, was sung by all around us. There was a huge explosion of streamers after this that got volume levels really climbing then a countdown from ten until Heracles – the home team – and opponents, VVV-Venlo entered the field at which point there was bedlam.

By the time the teams were ready to begin, the noise was incredible. The home fans (about 10,000 of them) got behind their players from the first second, making a tremendous din but one of complete encouragement, literally willing them to attack and score.

What happened? They nearly scored after less than 20 seconds but the keeper made a save. The corner was cleared off the line but no matter, after 2 minutes the breakthrough came and Heracles never looked back – winning 4-1 but it could have easily been double that with better finishing.

I quickly checked previous results. Heracles had won all their home games at the time except one – against Feyenoord and later that month they lost to PSV but then the ‘big 3’ in Holland beat most teams – and they’d won most of them with quite a bit to spare and regularly scoring three or four goals. They were also pretty hopeless away from home BTW.

Here We Go, Here We Go [Again]

Now this might be just a case of finding two teams with vastly contrasting fortunes. It might be coincidence but I don’t think it is. I have noticed a pattern for early goals, or early chances that almost went in, especially when the crowd are creating a positive energy for their team.

If you look at it logically, a winning streak makes perfect sense. Previous good results help to put fans in a positive mood before the game, and this transfers to the players earlier so they play well, score early and carry on winning. It’s almost self-fulfilling.

Yet most football fans are, and I’m probably thinking about ones in England from my own experiences, often a pessimistic bunch that usually fear – or prepare for – the worst. There is an undercurrent of ‘here we go again’ that feels almost inherent; maybe a way of protecting ourselves from more disappointment.

In other sports, lets pick rugby union or cricket as examples but you could also throw in ice hockey and rugby league, fans tend to be less fearful and not as resigned to potential defeat. The percentage of home wins is higher in all of them. Again, merely coincidence?

I’m not sure if there are any definitive conclusions to be made at this stage. There is probably a lot more research needed and again, if anyone wants to fund me to carry it out, please do get in touch.

I’m also not completely sure if sportsmen and women have real superpowers, if coaches can ride magic carpets or if crowds can affect what a player does with the power of their thoughts.

I am pretty sure that the more positive and supportive a home crowd are, especially at the start of a game, the better chance their team have of playing well, scoring early and winning the game.

And that’s magic enough in its own right.