There’s not much to celebrate in Chicago sports right now. While we prepare for yet another Patriots vs. Eagles Super Bowl and eagerly await the season openers for the only two winning teams in the city (the Cubs, and, yes, the Fire), we asked Dr. Jeffrey Fishbein, a sports psychologist with two decades of experience with the Expos, Marlins, and now White Sox, to talk about how teams handle losing.
How do players on losing teams motivate themselves?
Daily improvement is a really good goal for a player on a team that is constantly losing. Just from a pure motivational perspective, professional athletes are often concerned with numbers, and sometimes it’s good to set small goals for a game, or for a half, or for a series of games, to see if they can accomplish smaller, achievable goals within a shorter time frame. Sometimes the season can be so long that they can have trouble seeing how it can benefit the team, but if you shorten the season by chunking it into smaller parts, it can create more of a cleaner start.
Players are motivated intrinsically and extrinsically. I am a proponent of motivating oneself by focusing on the benefits derived from playing the game you love.
How does it affect them when they begin a season knowing that, as a team, they are not expected to compete?
I don’t think it has as great of an impact on the players as one might imagine. In my experience, the professional athlete is an extremely competitive person, and their desire each time they get on the court or the field is to compete, and ultimately to win. Over time it might come into their minds, but a good manager or a good coach is going to prepare his team to compete.
What do you recommend to help players stay positive?
It depends on multiple factors: first, the level of optimism a player or team possesses; second, the messages from the coach or players; and third, looking at the purpose of the season. Is a particular year all about wins and losses, or is it about the development of a team for the purpose of something being built for a year or two down the road? What I have seen work most effectively is when a coach or a manager reminds his team that they are professionals, that they are the best at what they do, and a loss shouldn’t change that perception of themselves. A simple reminder that a player brings value despite a night’s performance, is sometimes important for these guys to hear.
I do think you can redefine what a losing streak is, thereby changing the perception of an individual game. For example, a player can learn how to play each day as the first game repeatedly, not as a ninth game after losing eight in a row. Every game creates an opportunity for a shift in momentum. That’s what we saw with the Bulls, and suddenly one win leads to three which leads to six, and so on.
How have you seen teams handle negativity when it does begin to creep in?
I have seen veterans step into the process and remind players that as bad as they may have been today, tomorrow is a new day. They’re the ones who have the experience that you can’t really teach. I believe guys coming together, however they might do it—sitting in the clubhouse, going out, having a barbecue at someone’s house—helps in reminding each other that competing and improving, despite the stats of a day or week, remain the goals.
You said that it helps for the group of players to know about an organization’s long-term plan so they can play with greater purpose. Can you explain more?
Take the Cubs, for instance. Going through a 100-loss season makes what they ultimately went through all the more special. There is not a player I know who would not go through a 100-loss season [so he could be part of] the best team in baseball two to three years down the road. For better or worse, sacrifice is part of this game, losing is part of this game, and failure is part of this game. A player can dwell on it or learn from it.