Being slightly behind can be a winning situation

Churchill

So it’s half time. You are behind by a goal (or a basket, or a stroke …). You take a breather, reassess your situation and fire yourself up for the second half. And what happens? More than likely, you end up winning.

Much has been spoken of the emotional half time Churchillian speech from the coach, an inspired substitution or reorganisation… but the simple fact is that if a team or a group or an individual believes it is just behind, but with enough time left (such as half the game) they can refocus and be motivated to play better and get over the line.

It doesn’t work if you’re way behind. Invariably, people give up – it’s just too hopeless. 5-0 down isn’t much fun. It’s demotivating. But if you’re just behind, there’s a chance, and things can be turned around. You can sense victory, within reach.

Intuitively, this makes sense. We’ve all been in situations (or seen them) when teams have come back afresh in the second half, 1-0 down, to win, say 2-1. There have been (rarer) instances of teams being 4-0 up at half time and then losing it. Ouch. Although I read that Man City has not won a game in 20 years having been down at half time. (Quiet hurray!)

So, the theory is that a team is more likely to be motivated, play better, and end up winning if they are only just behind at half time. In other words, you’d almost prefer the team to be in this situation. Unless their opponents are hopeless or the gap in abilities too wide, teams that are just ahead can stutter, their nerves a-jangle, they make mistakes, play too defensively, and forget what put them ahead in the first place.

So what does the research say? It concurs. Jonah Berger (he of the ‘STEPPS’ Contagious findings) and Devin Pope found in 2011 that if teams thought they were just behind at half time they had a slightly higher chance of winning in the end. Studying 18,000 professional basketball games, they found teams that were 1 point behind won more games that teams that were 1 point ahead. They found that being behind at half time was only half as advantageous as playing at home. And we all know playing at home can be a massive advantage.

Berger found the same results when he put people into a competitive typing situation telling certain groups they were slightly ahead, another they were even, and another they were slightly behind. It did not matter where these people were in fact. What mattered was where they thought they were, compared to the other groups. Those told they were slightly behind massively increased their keystrokes per minute (their increase was higher by a factor of three.)

So, here we are near the end of the calendar year, half way through the Australian financial year. If you’re slightly behind to budget, be fired up for the second half. Spend some time relaxing, getting away from things, and then come roaring back in January to June.

Merry Christmas.

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