What drives success in sport?
Last Tuesday night, we saw Serge Gnabry score 4 goals away at Spurs in the Champions League.
That is success in the game of football.
But what drives that success? Where does the will to win, to do great things on a football pitch, come from? Is it innate? Is it a product of the way the player was raised or coached?
What if it were borne of existential enquiry?
It’s easy to imagine a young Serge Gnabry sitting on West Brom’s bench wondering where it all went wrong. Perhaps during these meditations on a stalling career, he wandered into darker territory. Contemplating, among other things, his own mortality.
You’d do the same if you weren’t deemed good enough by Tony Pulis.
Motivation is one of the key drivers of performance in sport. Is it possible that, during this contemplation, young Serge found the motivation required to score 32 goals in 84 Bundesliga appearances and 9 goals in 10 games for Die Mannschaft, winning a league and cup double as well as Bayern’s player of the year for 2018/19 along the way?
According to Terror Management Theory, it may be.
Terror Management Theory is an idea in psychology that posits fear of death as an important factor in motivating an individual to carry out a task or achieve a goal.
At its core is the idea that we fear death.
As a way of distracting ourselves from our impending doom, we establish culture. We set up things like religions to give us life after death. We create sports to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to be successful in these sports, to be the best, to be remembered.
The physical form of George Best may have left us some years ago, but memories of the European Cup final in 1968 have no expiration date. The airport that bears his name will stand for years to come. This is life after death.
Studies have shown that athletic performance improves when athletes are reminded of their own mortality.
One such study at the University of Arizona involved a group of male basketball players. They were split into 2 groups and asked to compete in a number of one-on-one games. After the games, 1 of the groups underwent a process where they were reminded of their death. The other group did not undergo this process. When asked to resume these one-on-one games, the players who had been reminded of their own death showed improvements in performance of 20% in terms of points scored. The same happened when they took part in a free-throw contest. Those who were reminded of their mortality performed better than those who had no such reminder.
The researchers felt that it was a matter of self-esteem. Good performance can lead to an increase in levels of self-esteem, and this increase can act as a buffer against the anxiety of death.
Another study focussed on strength. Psychologists at the University of Minnesota Morris found that individuals who were reminded of their own death performed better on a test of strength than those in a control condition.
Neither of these studies deal with football specifically, but self-esteem and strength are two factors of performance that can be applied to any sport.
It’s hard to see it becoming a staple of manager’s team talks, but someday, instead of, “Lads, it’s Tottenham” we might have, “Lads, memento mori.”
And is there not something mysterious about the top players? Some intangible X factor that marks them out as different from the others. Talent plays its part. Hard work and resilience even more so. But who’s to say there’s not a little voice in the back of Messi’s head reminding him of his own impermanence? His numerous accolades might point to a terrible fear of the grim reaper. Poor Leo.
For Serge Gnabry, however, he will be hoping his 4-goal haul is one of the first major steps on a path to footballing immortality.