The second goal
When analysts and armchair fans are taking the measure of a coach, we tend to look at concrete, easily definable factors.
Tactics, style, personnel decisions, experience, facial hair, .gif’ibility,’ among others, weigh on our judgment.
And these matter, obviously. The razor sharp mind of Chip Kelly is much preferred to say, Mike Tice. Or Greg Schiano. Or Marty Mornhinweg. Or Lou Holtz.
Anything is better than Lou Holtz.
But given relatively equal strategic nous and mustache-ability, I would submit there is one factor that separates the good coach from the future ESPN analysts.
Can they ignore their human impulses?
Hang with me for a second.
If you are new to soccer and have been watching the World Cup as a spectacle that comes around once every four years, something has probably struck you as odd over the past two weeks.
(Insert tired American soccer joke here).
A goal is scored, and an awesome celebration ensues. Raw adrenaline, crowd engaging, Colombian dancing, corner pole karate. If you watch the NFL every Sunday, this is odd in itself, as breathing heavily after a touchdown is now liable for a 15-yard penalty.
But it is the way the tone changes AFTER the goal that seems most strange.
Up 1-0, many teams at the World Cup will simply stop attacking. They “park the bus,” to use the soccer euphemism, and hope to clear enough crosses away from their goal in 90 minutes to hang on. The U.S. did it in both the Ghana win and Portugal draw. Italy has made it an art form over the years.
Even the TV commentators will get into the act, framing their conversation as if the team leading has already advanced to the next round.
Except – it’s not true. At all.
Mexico has failed to reach the quarterfinals for the sixth straight year because they let the Dutch back into the game after going up 1-0. Chile exited the tournament on penalty kicks after it essentially stopped throwing more than three men at the Brazilian goal, in a game most neutrals would agree Chile controlled the first 90 minutes. Heck, the Champions League final between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid went the same way in club soccer, with Atletico deciding a 1-0 lead was good enough.
They lost 4-1 to their cross-town rivals in extra time.
Behavioral psychologists – most notably Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman – have a name for this.
It’s called Loss Aversion.
To give an oversimplified explanation, Loss Aversion comes about because humans are stupid.
(Or “irrational,” to use the preferred scientific term.)
Humans, for various reasons, hate to lose more than they want to win. Some studies have estimated that the average human will experience twice as much pain from a loss, than pleasure gained from a win. You find $20 in your pocket you didn’t know you had, and you are happy. But you lose $20 after a night of rabble rousing, and you are madder than Andy Reid with an empty donut box.
We see this affect strategy in sports all the time. Teams play not to lose, rather than win.
And it has very real consequences as a change of attitude.
The football coach doesn’t go for it on 4th-and-1, when every mathematical model says he should do so. The basketball coach doesn’t foul at the end of the game when his team is up three, on the off chance they foul a three-point shooter. The hockey coach doesn’t pull the goalie until there is one minute left, regardless of game flow and circumstances. In baseball, managers will sacrifice bunt and intentionally walk their way to a loss, all so they can follow a convention that provides mental cover even if it hurts the chance to win.
And in soccer, teams full of elite passers and technical players – Mexico – will stop attacking once they are up one goal. It is obviously irrational to play differently over the final 40 minutes with just a one-goal lead. But that doesn’t stop nearly every team in the world from doing so.
On the flip side, the best coaches in football and basketball – Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich – are widely regarded as two who go against convention, two who take risks.
Belichick is likely to try and convert on fourth down from anywhere on the field. Popovich utilizes his bench players unlike anyone else in the NBA.
But what is regarded as unconventional is merely rational. They want to win more than they fear to lose and act accordingly. And they have the rings to back it up.
The World Cup is anyone’s to win at this point. Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, France and Belgium all have arguments to be made for their side.
But it will likely come down to just one question.
Who has the cojones to go for that second goal?