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Author: Simon Rea

Managing a team through triumph and despair

Updated Friday, 16th May 2014
In sport, how does a manager help their team to cope with success and particular failure? Simon Rea explores some of the tactics.

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David Moyes Professional sport is punctuated by incredible highs points and catastrophic lows. In April 2014 with Liverpool set to win the English Premiership Steven Gerrard slips and gifts a goal to Chelsea’s Demba Ba allowing Manchester City the chance to win the title. Likewise, the England cricket team having won three consecutive Ashes series crash to a 5-0 defeat in Australia. Sport is about winning and losing or it is not sport. As in life without the sheer joy of success there would not be the deep agony of losing – the threat of defeat is what makes victory worth having.

So how does a manager or coach help players to cope with success and in particular failure?

Interpreting success and failure

What seems to be important is how winning and losing are interpreted by players and coaches. We can see when children celebrate they often interpret success as making them better than the losers with refrains such as ‘we are the best and you are rubbish’. Success can become linked with being a wonderful, talented person and failure to being a useless person who won’t amount to much.

One of the most memorable football events of recent years was when Sergio Aguero scored for Manchester City in the 93rd minute of the final match of the 2011/12 season to secure Manchester City’s first title since 1968.  This denied their cross city rivals, Manchester United, the title and while Manchester City’s fans and players basked in the euphoria of victory the Manchester United players trudged around the pitch in scenes of despair. But in these moments of heartbreak the seeds of future success are sown – if defeat is managed correctly. Nigel Atkins, the well-respected manager of Reading, has said:

“It’s important to feel the pain and the hurt. That way it makes you work even harder… you want to make sure they don’t want to feel this again.  You want to feel the euphoria of winning things.”
            (Atkins, N. in M.Syed, The Times, 2014)

Similar emotions would have been felt by England’s rugby team after their disastrous 2011 World Cup campaign. After a huge review of why things went wrong and an overhaul of players and coaching staff the team has come out stronger to a position where they can challenge at the 2015 event.

Controlling your emotions

It is interesting to watch how managers and coaches celebrate success. Some coaches, such as Jose Mourinho and Tim Sherwood, are over exuberant and show their raw emotions; others, such as Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers, are more reserved in their celebrations. In 1985 Boris Becker became Wimbledon tennis champion at the age of 17 and he was loved by the watching public for his enthusiastic style and emotional celebrations. But as he got older he found he could not cope with extreme emotions of playing tennis.  In 1988 he said he had learnt:

“Not to be so unbelievably happy when I win and unbelievably sad when I lose”
     (Becker, B. in Dillman, L., LA Times, 29/02/1988)

It seems like a sensible philosophy to control emotions - sacrificing the highs to be spared the lows. But are highs and lows not at the heart of sporting competition?

Taking responsibility for success and failure

According to Mick McCarthy who has managed Sunderland, Wolves and Ipswich as well as the Republic of Ireland at a World Cup, the most important thing is to take ownership and responsibility of success and failure (Carson, 2013). Success and failure can be attributed to factors such as ability and skill of your team, the effort of the players, the challenge imposed by the opposition and luck (Weiner, 1985). Luck would include refereeing decisions as well as deflections or how the ball bounced.

Jose Mourinho’s approach is to blame external factors such as refereeing decisions or the opposition’s tactics. This approach has its merits as it is ego-protective and means a manager can still feel good about themselves and their tactics and also protect their players from criticism. However, this externalising of failure can be dangerous as it leaves no room for learning from defeat. Brendan Rodgers fell into this trap after defeat by Mourinho’s Chelsea team when he said that failure was due to Chelsea parking two buses in the penalty area. Later he regretted saying this as he accepted it was his responsibility to find a way to play against these tactics. A subtle move from externalising to internalising responsibility. In defeat managers need to focus on the problems and resolve them.

Learn and move on

Dwelling on a mistake or failure will not change the eventit and it affects a manager’s influence on the present. Mick McCarthy in Carson (2013) describes how after a defeat he would re-watch the match and review performance, take any positive lessons away and then work to correct the negatives. Carlo Ancelotti talks about learning the lesson and then moving on to where he has an influence – that is preparing for the next match.

Rebuilding confidence

Sport Psychologist, Steve Bull, coined the phrase ‘turnaround toughness’ to describe how players can deal with setbacks. In his book The Game Plan (2006) he explains how he used a technique called ‘reconnecting with previous successes’ with the England cricket team to help rebuild their confidence. Rather than focusing on a failure and its accompanying loss of self-belief he got his players to write down 12 achievements they were proud of and place them on a chart. Reading and reliving their successes helped to refocus the attention of the players and provide them with positive feelings.

Developing an optimistic (but realistic) approach is also beneficial. Brendan Rodgers has been able to reframe Liverpool’s season after their defeat to Chelsea into one of success. Their goal at the start of the season was to qualify for the Champions’ League and this has been achieved.

In summary, great leaders will take responsibility for the successes and failures of their team, they will learn from defeats and build up their team’s self-belief. Defeat is inevitable in sport as there can only be one winner but how defeat is dealt with defines the manager and their chances of future success.


  • Bull, S. (2006), The Game Plan, Capstone, Chichester.
  • Carson, M. (2013), The Manager, Bloomsbury, London.
  • Dillman, L. (1988). ‘Taught him a lesson’, Los Angeles Times, 29 February 1988 [online],, Accessed 9th May, 2014).
  • Syed, M. (2014) ‘Victory can only be enjoyed after the enduring agony of defeat’, The Times, 5 May, p.20.
  • Weiner, B. (1985),’An attribution theory of achievement motivation and emotion, Psychological Review, vol.92, pp.548-73.

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