How to Help a Losing Team

Those of us who live in Philadelphia have been exposed to an unusual (if unappealing) opportunity to learn about the effect of chronic shame on muscular coordination, athletic skill, and cognition. Under the guidance of its head coach, the Philadelphia Eagles football franchise has slipped slowly into the bottom of its league despite the promise showed by its players a couple of years ago. “They’re playing like they’ve got lead shoes” said the play-by-play announcer during last week’s game, their worst ever. “This game has set football back a couple of decades.” “This is the worst game I’ve ever seen.” And more of that ilk during an entire four quarters of professional football.

Callers on “Talk Shows,” radio programs through which those citizens with the highest density of negative affect air their grievances for all to hear, have almost universally said that the best thing we can do is to humiliate the players and staff so thoroughly that they will play better. I’ve heard that one newspaper, peculiarly sensitive to the needs of its audience, considered the idea of offering rewards to fans who designed the most degrading signs to be displayed at the stadium for the benefit of the television audience. Others in that profession have lambasted coach, owners, team staff, and literally anyone else who they can identify as associated with the franchise. Stadium stands have rocked with derisive laughter as well as the moan of what locally are called “the Boo Birds.” The players, now part of a culturally sanctioned and highly paid arm of the entertainment industry, are exposed constantly to these messages and attitudes.

Nevertheless, the more you know about the biology and the psychology of shame, the less you can accept such an attitude. You and I know that the physiological effect of shame affect is to reduce muscle tone in the neck and upper body, to make it very difficult for one to pay useful attention to any (otherwise interesting or important) stimulus, to slow cognition to a point where intelligence is impaired severely, and to make it supremely difficult for one to gaze into the eyes of another adult. Save for the point on the compass of shame we call the “attack other script,” from which any of us may use rage to act effectively and thereby reduce shame, shame is a destructive force in athletic enterprise.

Those of you who have been privy to the print and broadcast interviews with the head coach have come to understand that he motivates almost entirely by shame, and that he holds in contempt anyone who does not perform to the standard he sets. Even the majority owner of the team has expressed publicly his contempt for (and, of course, despair at) the work product of his employees. This owner took a Caribbean vacation early in the football season, leading many commentators to question his ability to lead a team that desperately needed his support. This, then, is a picture of shame at many levels — each and every player, head coach, team staff, owners, fans, journalists, and ordinary citizens who look to their city-named teams to bring them what I have called “borrowed pride.” Multi-level massive shame so powerful that there is no hope the team can improve in this season.

My hypothetical assignment for you: Imagine that you are a professional psychotherapist who has been called in as a consultant to this woebegone team. What interventions would you contemplate? Where would you start? If part of your strategy is to replace some of the team personnel, how would you begin to make that determination? From what I’ve said so far, who should be first to go? How long do you think it would take to make a significant change in this professional franchise?

My own preference would be to start at the top. In this approach I take for granted that if management has called in a psychotherapist, it has recognized that something has gone wrong in the psychosocial realm. I would engage the majority owner in a series of private discussions about the matters presented above, and then talk about the way Japanese corporations handle failure. In that system, the boss alone takes full public responsibility for whatever has gone wrong, speaking with bowed head both to the public and to the organization. The workers are complimented for having done their best in a system that had been managed poorly, and asked for their forbearance while management retrenches. The immediate result of this maneuver would be a temporary increase in pride on the part of the players, who could then play their best until a new head coach was found.

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