Mind Games: Social Science Goes to the World Cup

Uruguay v Costa_Rica
Here’s one definition of “choke”: Costa Rica beats Uruguay 3-1
Fan or foe, chances are over the next four weeks you’ll catch at least parts of World Cup matches, whether through bleary eyes in the wee hours or snippets on the evening news.

If you’re unfamiliar with the rules, or are watching a match and support neither team, understanding the workings of the mind can make any sport more entertaining – especially football.

Here, I offer up some ideas drawn from sport psychology that can both improve your viewing experience and impress your mates.


My father remains the family champion at almost all sports, due to his ability to induce a choke at key moments. Even when losing, he will simply note: “This would be a bad game to lose from here.”

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This article by Richard Keegan originally appeared at The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “Mind games: a World Cup guide for armchair psychologists”
By doing so, he ingeniously induces the main symptom of a “choke” – sudden, inexplicable lapses in performance.

But even the world’s best have occasional skill failures that are not technically “chokes.” What defines a choke is an emphasis on social evaluation that provokes increased self-awareness. Experts (at any skill) have automated performance, such that it requires no mental effort.

In contrast, novices analyze the movement using their sophisticated yet slow-and-deliberate conscious mind. Skill learning occurs as we automate the various aspects of the movement, but anything that can persuade the conscious system to step in and take control again – such as pressure and questions – can cause a choke.

Fear of failure

Why do teams become so conservative in the most important matches? I have a stock ice-breaker in teamwork sessions: the floating pole game (see the video below).

The two (only two!) rules of the game translate as:

  1. lower the pole to the ground
  2. don’t mess up!

By flamboyantly enforcing Rule 2, I can almost guarantee the pole will rise, not fall – the exact opposite of winning.

When players focus on avoiding defeat, as opposed to winning, their style of play often becomes risk-averse. Psychologically, “winning” and “not-losing” are very different, even if one should beget the other.

It is worth remembering that it’s not failure we fear, but the consequences of failing (a seven-year-old focus group participant taught me this). This can explain why the quality of the attacking play often deteriorates as the tournament progresses and the stakes get higher.


In a famous experiment, American psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated how completely normal people often ignore obvious physical evidence (such as “Line A is much longer than Line B”) if the rest of their group all agrees. Watch as a hapless participant yields in the video below.

To players in a team, the difference between “hard uncontrollable reality” and “the way we’re doing things right now” is often blurry.

Therefore if everyone else is quiet, risk-averse and nervy, that attitude becomes normal. In such situations, strong acts of leadership and/ or open, frank communication between players can allow the harmful “norm” to be broken.

However with few opportunities to pause and reflect, it is much easier said than done.

Flow or ‘the zone’

In his autobiography, Brazilian footballing legend Pelé describes being in “the zone” beautifully:

a strange calmness […] a type of euphoria; I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their teams or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically.

Pele was unstoppable when in the zone.

Ironically, athletes performing at their best often remember very little of the experience, and when asked “How did you do that?”, they often reply “I don’t know”.

Time seems to pass quicker, and the player feels totally in control. Notably, the experience always accompanies excellence, never poor performance.

In some ways, flow is the polar opposite of choking; the controlling brain relinquishes control and enjoys the ride (which is invariably a pleasurable experience). The player has confidence to try things they might never ordinarily attempt … and succeed.

Momentum or the ‘run-of-play’

This is a commentators’ favourite. If flow is at the individual level, in this instance we can view momentum as applying at the team level (although individual sports such as tennis and golf can be analysed in terms of “momentum” too).

It can be easily tracked in two-sided games as possession and territory appear to swing from one side to the other. It can change rapidly, and some players even try to manage momentum by feigning injuries or delaying re-starts.

Rousing tackles, runs, shots or saves/blocks can all be seen as momentum-changers, as can refereeing decisions.

Importantly, the team with more momentum tends to be the one that scores – but counter-attacking is a specific tactic often used in football.


At a junction today, I knew another car was going to cut across me. No indication; I just knew, and couldn’t tell you exactly why: approach speed? Lane positioning? Something cued me to stop.

In the same way, elite players do not think faster or better per se – they have just developed better mental shortcuts. Technically, these could be called attentional cues (see what Ronaldo sees in the video below):

Using such cues, those who play together a lot simply “know”, often unconsciously, where their compatriot will be – apparently showing some “sixth sense”.

Nevertheless, it is still a guess, and players who have only been playing together a few weeks – as a World Cup often demands – sometimes make odd passes or defend badly because their usual rules or shortcuts don’t work in the new situation.

In the opinion of this psychologist, the mental game is often more interesting than the one on the pitch!The Conversation

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Richard Keegan

Richard Keegan is an assistant professor in sport and exercise psychology at University of Canberra. Specializing in sport and exercise psychology, Keegan arrived at UC having spent six years lecturing at the University of Lincoln (UK). He completed his MSc and PhD at Loughborough University (UK), and before that, a degree in psychology at the University of Bristol. He is a qualified and registered psychologist (AHPRA in Australia and HCPC in the UK), working with athletes across the full range of levels (from beginners to world champions), and in sports ranging through athletics to yachting.

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