Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Motivating (Soccer) Teams: What Price Success, or Failure?

Here is something we would like to know about teamwork: What is the effect of successes along the way? Or failures? The answer is important because teams often have partial goals that they either fulfill or not at the designated time, so a team may be encouraged by a success or disappointed by a failure. And those effects, in turn, may affect their work, though it is by no means certain that teams work better after a success. 

Jo Nesbø, Nils Rudi, Marat Salikhov, and me investigated this question in an article published in PLOS ONE, picking a context that has very literal teams and goals – top national leagues of professional soccer (known as football in most of the world). The idea was that a goal scored is a success for scoring team and a failure for the conceding team, so each goal changes the dynamics of the game. The question, then, is how that affects the likelihood of a victory or the full-time goal difference in the game.

To start with the obvious, soccer games have few goals, so simply scoring a goal makes a big difference. But here is also something less obvious, and potentially important. Usually the play goes on after a goal, but an important exception is when the goal is just before halftime. For example, in the last minute before halftime, which is what we investigated. In that case, the referee blows the whistle soon, and the teams go to their locker rooms. Then what?

The halftime break is when managers (coaches) make adjustments and motivate their teams, and team members rest and prepare for the second half. A goal just before the break is supposed to be demoralizing for the team that conceded the goal, and managers try to counter that effect. If they fail in doing that, a goal just before halftime influences the game much more than one at any other time. And indeed, that is what we found – halftime goals by the home team are influential; halftime goals by the away team are not. The difference is interesting because away teams are playing at a disadvantage to begin with, and conceding a goal at a bad time just makes things worse.

So, is the conclusion that successes are good, and failure are bad? It looks that way, and in fact it is quite likely that success just before the break gives the team a better start. Actually, it is not so simple that we can draw that conclusion. You see, another possibility is that successes produce overconfidence that makes a team more vulnerable to mistakes for a (short) while after. If that is true, halftime goals are great simply because the halftime removes the vulnerable period. That would affect home team more because away teams play in front of hostile fans and feel vulnerable even after scoring a goal.

What is the real explanation of this effect? We cannot be sure, because team dynamics are complicated and difficult to dissect very accurately. That, along with how important teams are for work in many kinds of organizations, means that we have to be very careful in the research before drawing final conclusions. That sounds like a reason to do more research on goal scoring in soccer, and on teams having successes and failures more generally.

Greve, H. R., J. Nesbø, N. Rudi, and M. Salikhov. 2020 "Are goals scored just before halftime worth more? An old soccer wisdom statistically tested." PLOS ONE, 15: e0240438.