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Castles by Ants – Episode 2: PSYCHOLOGICAL SYSTEMS

An ongoing series about psychology in the world of sport.

Attitudes have changed among sports professionals towards psychology. Teams hire psychologists, and rightly so, but a responsible team leader would seldom consider them sufficient to reach success. Elite coaches have robust, systematic approaches. Neither a club nor a national team coach could win without a methodical, constructive method. Of course, this was not always the case! In the most popular team sports, the change in the personalities of coaches over the years is readily apparent. Instead of the loud, frantic coaches who constantly ran up and down the court, the calm, direct, maximalist, and system-focused coaches with calculated training plans have emerged. And these emergent coaches have increasingly “usurped” their predecessors; systematic teams defeated the teams that could not cooperate but were instead motivated by impulsive coaches. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon throughout the world, and perhaps the best known are the step-by-step improvements of the Germany men’s football team, or the incredible runs of the Norway women’s handball team, the France men’s handball team, or the Spain women’s basketball team. The common feature of these teams is that its members were selected only if they had personalities focussed on “team play” and “systematic thinking”. Moreover, each squad included only one player who came from the proactive side of the psychological circle, where individual performance overwrites the needs of the team! But to build a team so effectively, a coach needs a strong psychological background. And for the coach to be able to apply this knowledge continuously in teambuilding, it is necessary to incorporate psychological knowledge into a system! Thus, we have arrived at the increasing use of psychological systems in sport. At the end of the day, sports professionals do not know what to do with the individual analyses at the team level! The most important thing for a coach is how mental dynamics work at the team level. To do this, professionals need a system, a “team map” onto which they can place their players, themselves, and even their opponents! They need a common language! And that’s what you can collect only from a system! They are also beginning to try out different solutions that can be found around the world. These are mostly business-based solutions, and perhaps the biggest challenge is to translate business solutions into the language of sport! It is also a challenge because the creators of such systems are far from the world of sport, as are their solutions. Because of this, their tests, datasets, and results are normed on “average people” and not on athletes; the whole theory is designed for businesspeople, not athletes. But business psychology companies have very astutely discovered that there is big money in sport, so they have forced their way in. Yet those mechanisms that work so well in business can fail spectacularly in sport. If a well-promoted business psychology system fails to produce a good result in business, in most cases, no one will even know for several years. Many people can provide interesting insights about a manager’s psyche, and they do not necessarily need to have exceptional psychological knowledge. Also, in business, these companies think it is enough to simply “analyse” colleagues. They receive a rainbow-coloured analysis about themselves, so that means that we care about them, right? I have operated in this part of the business world for over two decades now, so I know that if you really want to help someone, you must dive deeper.

It is not easy to repurpose a system from business to sport. On the one hand, business psychology systems come almost exclusively from the United States! They were developed, adapted, and tested there. If not, they come from countries with “welfare societies”. Why does this cause problems? Twenty-one years ago, I started applying the first psychological system in my life as a newly appointed sales director for a multinational media company in 21 countries on 4 continents. The greatest advantage of these systems is that they “type” people in very clever ways and divide them into fitting groups. Although belonging to a group does not provide a complete psychological analysis of individuals in the group, it does determine their common psychological features and characteristics. The problem is that most systems rely solely on externalities because they try to teach the user to create a superficial picture of a person based on a personal impression. Identify the behaviours you see on the spot and draw conclusions about the person’s thinking, motivation, and decision-making mechanisms. This theory comes from Marston, who in 1929 published his methodology for typing people. This approach works very well if the behaviour matches the “true personality” of the person we are analysing. If there is no mask on it, if it is self-identified; that is, if they have enough self-criticism and self-awareness to stay true to themselves. And this is the cornerstone of these systems. In certain societies, these “pure” cases occur more often. A good example of this is the US, where, in the period when psychological systems were created, it was indeed possible to declare that a large part of society “did not fake it”. Overall, people expressed their real selves to society at large. In an affluent society, it is easier to do than in a country where poverty or external factors often drives most of society to play a role to survive! For example, when we talk about the inhabitants of an ex-Soviet country, systems from the US fail. Anyone who lives in that part of the world knows exactly what I’m talking about because it would have been dangerous to stand up for certain values, and that was, unfortunately, true even in sport. As a result, when an American system was adapted for use in different countries within a multinational company, there was a significant difference in its effect. In Central Europe, for example, such tests were able to work well when they were used by businesspeople to sell low-value products and services, as people could easily decide to buy them, no matter the mask. But when the time came to build up a person’s motivation based on an overseas system; disappointment was guaranteed. It was the only possible result: in societies where people choose workplaces to survive, and there is less focus on what they really want to do with their lives, then obviously their interviews, conversations, and psychological profile will be misleading!

Why is this all relevant in the pages of a sports book? Because traditional psychological systems focus on behaviour. Behaviour depends on the situation and may change from one moment to the next. However, important decisions and qualities used in critical situations stem from our personality. Our personality does not change much at all, and if it does, only a little bit and very slowly. However, while a person can “get by” in business life by changing their behaviour and wearing masks, sport does not allow for this. A businessperson can get up every morning and practise leader facial expressions and reactions in front of a mirror and can execute this behaviour in routine situations. Who knows what will happen when they encounter a crisis, when they can’t control their mask? In sport, these masks crumble and disappear before the first important shot, often during the warm-up before a match. Because of this, systems that focus on behaviour are not only useless but also dangerous in sport, as they can give a completely unrealistic picture of an athlete, which can lead to big, unpleasant surprises during important competitions. Systems that define personality, however, can show sports professionals and athletes what to expect during a given competition using black and white terms! There are few systems around the world that deal with personality and behaviour analysis, as the process requires a sophisticated, highly professional background, and most importantly, cannot exist without a specific test environment. For systems with a research base, this is the biggest challenge as objective testing is needed before launching a new test on the market. It is also recognised that companies in the business consulting field with close links to personality and behaviour research can create real value. They can create a test environment that works in real situations from which they receive relevant feedback. Also, this environment should not be just a few hundred people, but thousands, and it needs to be in various parts of the world. This is why modern business psychology is increasingly dominated by companies that have been dealing with business development, organisational development, and teambuilding for decades, and can develop their own systems in real time during authentic development projects. I have personally seen the beneficial impacts of this process because, as an economist and controlling professional, psychology was just an interesting add-on for me twenty years ago; I never believed in the big theories until I saw them produce business results. Today, I am behind the face-to-face delivery of nearly 10,000 personality and behaviour analyses and the success of over 500 business development projects, which is clearly because we were able to determine the decision-making mechanisms of the given people on a personality basis. I have seen its re-interpretation and results in sport for 11 years, and its direct impact on more than 3,000 athletes.


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Castles by Ants – Episode 1: PSYCHOLOGY AND SPORT

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Castles by Ants – Episode 3: CRISIS IN SPORT