Super Bowl 51 and the Psychology of Losing

Super Bowl season is upon us.  This Sunday, at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX, the New England Patriots will meet the Atlanta Falcons to determine the 2017 NFL championship.  To the winner will go the spoils: the Lombardi trophy, homecoming parades, changes in team culture, fortifications of team and individual legacies.  To the loser?  Well, that’s complicated, and something that’s often overlooked.

The virtues of winning are well-established.  We’re conditioned to compete, and culturally, financially and biologically rewarded for winning.  Several scientific studies have shown a direct correlation between winning outcomes and testosterone and dopamine levels in the brain, which enhance both mental functioning and feelings of pleasure and well-being (Huettel, 2014). Researchers state that success and winning shape our brains more than genetics and drugs (Hardman, 2013). Success changes the chemistry of the brain, making you more focused, smarter, more confident and more aggressive.

But, as either the Falcons or Patriots will know only too well Sunday evening, losing just as much a part of competition as winning. The cost of winning, and the many rewards it provides, requires that every competition have a loser—or, in the case of the NFL, 31 of them.  Perhaps no one understands this reality more intimately than Jim Kelly, Hall of Fame quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, who lost four straight Super Bowls from 1991-1994.  “There’s always going to be a major emphasis on winning, because that’s just the way society is. That’s just the way our culture is: That you want to be number one at the end. And if you’re number two, at times, there’s no doubt that number two is looked upon as mediocre, as a person that didn’t achieve it, sometimes as losers” (CBS News, 2013).  Perhaps no one better understands victories, either.  Kelly has twice beaten cancer since retiring from the NFL.

The Super Bowl could be decided by a single kick, catch, coaching mistake, or even the 50/50 shot of a flip of a coin at the beginning (CBS News, 2013). Those seemingly insignificant actions are the fine line that ultimately will separate those who win from those who lose. Duke Neuroscientist Scott Huettel, who’s done much work with professional athletes, states that winning is overrated (Huettel, 2014).

So going into this Super Bowl Sunday, and let’s face it the rest of life, keep this in mind. Some of your biggest victories may stem from being able to stomach your worst losses. Winning is both a great feeling and beneficial to our health, but the work you put in to get there is what builds you as a person. Everyone needs to take a few losses here and there to give us a drive and a purpose to better ourselves and really evaluate our lives; something we might happen to overlook if we always won. Without that, where would we be in life? Afterall, majority of the reasons you continue on is because you’re doing something you love. The way you view any competition is what will define the way you see the reward. Whether you’re an NFL player, a high school athlete, or someone just trying to get through your daily life, you know you can’t win every challenge. It’s what you take from each loss, and even win, is what will shape your motivation for the next challenge.

Emma Doran

References:

Chase, C. (2017, January 23). Super Bowl LI: The 10 most important things to know about Falcons vs. Patriots | FOX Sports. Retrieved from http://www.foxsports.com/nfl/gallery/super-bowl-falcons-patriots-most-important-things-stats-tom-brady-matt-ryan-mvp-012317

CBS News. (2013, February 3). The psychology of winning – and losing – CBS News. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-psychology-of-winning-and-losing/

Robertson, I. H. (2012). The winner effect: The neuroscience of success and failure. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Huettel, S. (2014). An overall probability of winning heuristic for complex risky decisions: Choice and eye fixation evidence. 125 2: 73-87. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Hardiman, A. (2013, June 20). Your Brain on Winning | Runner’s World. Retrieved from http://www.runnersworld.com/race-training/your-brain-on-winning

 

 

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