World Cup 2014 panel

The psychology behind Brazil’s semi-final downward spiral

Down and out. Robert Ghement/EPA

Brazil 1, Germany 7. Very few people would have thought such a result was possible, especially in a World Cup semi-final where both teams would be anxious to succeed. Both teams had been on a journey of success; though Brazil weren’t playing the outstanding football of the 1970s, they were grinding out the results. But, by the end of the first half – in fact, in a six minute period – Brazil were heavily behind and the game beyond recovery.

What psychological theory can be used to explain what happened in the Brazil-Germany semi-final? There are many candidates but one that sticks out is self-efficacy theory. Put forward by Albert Bandura in the 1970s, self-efficacy has been extremely influential in the field of sports psychology. The guiding principle is that success raises confidence and failure lowers it – we saw the effects of this happening in the Brazil-Germany game.

Downward spiral

Last night Brazil’s confidence deteriorated on a moment by moment basis due to their failing performance. But we need to be clear about how this happened, as what constitutes a good or bad performance is not always clear in some instances. Conceding goals has an obvious and powerful psychological effect, but we saw Brazil’s performance deteriorate to the extent that they could barely string passes together.

We saw balls lofted from the back ending up at the feet of a German player. Such a pass would have been judged a brilliant one if three Brazilian forwards were running into the space where these balls were sent or if other options were available. Lofting a ball from the back is not necessarily poor play.

Brazil not only lacked confidence in executing their passes, there was also a loss of confidence in the kind of runs team mates were making for one another. We saw the potential receivers of passes lose confidence rapidly and their perceptions of failure led to their losing confidence in what would happen next. Players clearly began to over think how they were playing and this interrupted with their normal way of playing. An analogy might be to somebody walking a hundred feet up in the air on a rickety bridge becoming suddenly paralysed by their own thoughts and emotions, and finding it difficult to take one step after another. We saw Brazilian players uncertain about where to kick the ball; uncertain about whether to receive it and uncertain about what to do next.

The effects on Brazil were coupled with the growing confidence of the Germans, who started the game relatively cautiously and then found themselves three goals ahead very easily. Plus, Germany did not have to raise their game hugely; Brazil seemed to offer them the opportunities. They played in the same meticulous way they had throughout the tournament and, importantly, did extremely well in not taking the foot off the intensity pedal.

It is very difficult to anticipate the possibility of such a landslide defeat. But it goes to show that all teams must have strategies in place to guard against slumps in their game. Numerous strategies are available. One is to have performance reminders such as videos of your good performances available to look at shortly before playing, as watching success is a way of raising confidence.

Moving forward

It is also worth having reminders of times when the team had to dig themselves out of difficult situations, when they’ve had to perform in adversity. For Brazil to move forward – with the slight opportunity to redeem themselves in the third-place playoff – they need to watch videos of their games before the World Cup and each player establish how to play clearly their mind.

This will be challenging as memories of their worst-ever semi-final defeat are fresh. Emotions will be intense; guilt and misery when the players remember the game should serve as reminders to increase the intensity of play at the start in order to prevent a similar result recurring. It could be Argentina or Holland next; time to re-learn a winning feeling and use the painful emotions of defeat as reminders to be focused.