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Castles by Ants – Episode 18: The Supporter Athlete

An ongoing series about psychology in the world of sport.

It is no exaggeration that the greatest discovery made by sports professionals was the true potential of Supporter-type athletes. This discovery has completely transformed team sports. Today, it is common sense that if a team really reaches the top, then they can stay there. This process is especially true for national teams, where if there is a shrewd, planned development, the process simply does not stop. But what has been wrong with Supporter athletes for so long? Why were they neglected? Or, if they were selected, why were they not respected? A Supporter athlete does not seem extraordinary for a long time, they want to be average. They choose team sports because individual achievement is less enjoyable; they want to be on a team, surrounded by people. So, they are the ones really believe in all the “team first” rhetoric. Therefore, they are not so self-aware at an early age, at least not nearly as much as other personality types. Mostly, they can draw attention to themselves via their work ethic, but there is not much difference between a Ruler and a Supporter early on, as even a Ruler child can be persuaded to train intensely. On the other hand, the professionals working with juniors are often under pressure to produce immediate results. Thus, they establish good relationships much more easily with the most promising players — at least from their point of view — than with kids who just like to go to practice. Don’t be mistaken, coaches love kids who always work hard, but there is nothing special about such kids, and if by chance a non-Supporter coach receives a Supporter player, they will never be valued properly. Beyond a certain age, there are greater expectations regarding the results for coaches, which of course they project onto the team, but Supporter youngsters are not even close to ready to perform. They’re not performance oriented, they really play for the love of the game and the team, but there’s not much you can do with this in the relegation phase of a junior world championship. Because there is no patience towards them, many are discouraged and cannot handle the constant pressure of results, as a Supporter player must learn it first-hand. For them, competition is always stressful, and as a youngster it is exceedingly difficult to handle. In addition, the stress of constant competition also influences the academic results, so in many cases parents end a promising career. We can see that these acts are all unintentional, don’t we? From both the coaches and the parents! They just do what they think is best and what is expected of them; they are trying to be good coaches and parents. But in many cases, this causes serious harm to a Supporter child. In the field of youth teams, it is often said that “long-term development is needed”. And in the countries where they do this, the process will be fruitful. The basic prerequisite of long-term development is that we provide patience to players who at a younger age are often clumsier, but want to train, learn, and improve. This issue comes to the fore even more prominently with the Expert personality type, but Supporter players are also characterised by getting better with age. For them, routine is important, as are familiar situations. If they have a chance to be in decisive situations in childhood and to even make mistakes, and if this trust is given to them several times, then the Supporter player can come up to the first team with enough confidence. So, dear professionals at youth programmes, please take a look in the mirror when there is a constant problem with incorporating young players into the adult team, or when there is a significant difference between the results of youth and adult teams: there might be significant mistakes on your part, particularly in the field of underestimating the Supporter players and overrating Individual and Ruler players! When this is not a problem, young players can continuously strengthen the adult team, and the youth-to-professional development path is direct and consistent. We will talk about teambuilding later on, but it is certain that the most successful national teams are composed primarily of Supporters and Experts, with a few very carefully placed players from the other side of the psychological circle, the Ruler-Individual hemisphere.

The Supporter athlete is an honest worker who wants the team to win. If they do not play well, they are sad because they feel they have let their team down; but they can still be upbeat if the team prevails despite their poor personal performance. If they play really well, but the team loses, there is no indication of joy because they can’t really enjoy individual success. The Supporter is a persistent athlete who does not spare energy and time to perform better. By the way, this is exactly the personality trait that elevates them above almost all personality types in elite sports. It was shocking to me when we started analysing different sports, on an individual and team basis, and it ended up with the result that the predominant personality type among the most successful athletes was the Supporter. At least for those who have been able to stay atop the world rankings in the long run. This is true in tennis, track, handball, football, and basketball. Shall I go on? Is it shocking to say that Usain Bolt is a Supporter type? Or, as I have discussed, that Michael Jordan also in this category? Or Rafael Nadal? Cristiano Ronaldo? We can go through all the current stars; the Supporter types are well-represented. But of course, this phenomenon can be explained with simple logic! There are many talented athletes in the world. But the best ones can only get to the top via unremitting work, strenuous workouts, and the mobilisation of enormous energy. Only the Supporter is able to execute this path in the long run. A Ruler can do tremendous things in the short term, but they will never be so persistent. Upon reaching the first real obstacle, they give up and look for an easier way. An Individual cannot stand routines. Go down to a tennis court and hit the ball 500 times in the same way? Or let’s say 1,000? Well, that’s just not going to happen. The Supporter personality is essential for dogged work. And, of course, this work is needed to build up a long-term, stable team. The Supporter athlete is loyal. They will not leave just for a better deal. They are willing to bear a lot of things for the team, often negative things that they should not bear by virtue of their position or value. But they change very slowly because they are afraid of anything new. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t!” What does this mean for a team coach? Stability, predictability, systematic work, long-term goals, and constant development. Do we now understand why modern, system-focussed coaches have turned in this direction? Plus, the Supporter players are easy to manage. They do not have diva attitudes, you don’t need so many one-on-one discussions with them, unlike the two proactive personality types. They do their job admirably.

Of course, this type also has negative characteristics. You have to pay great attention to communication because their thoughts are driven by emotions. When it comes to strategy or tactics, much of the information is not absorbed easily. They learn slowly. They need a remarkably high number of repetitions to master the new elements. This often drives impatient coaches mad. They do not handle competitions well. Stress stays with them for a long time, which influences their performance. If we want to achieve top results with them, we need very conscientious and extensive preparation. This was my most recent experience with a Supporter team. The experience was positive in every respect, as it clearly points out how impressive results can be achieved with such a team. We started preparing for the European Championships ranked 50th in the World and 25th in Europe. There were no particular expectations for the team, as it was a big accomplishment for them to even qualify for the European Championships. The biggest benefit of the Supporter team is perseverance, and if the coaching strategy is smart, it takes advantage of this benefit. The national team captain not only listened to the psychological system analysis, but applied it thoroughly, which is no wonder, since his Expert-Supporter self is based on the systematic thinking and for him the players really matter. He does not look at athletes as simple pawns who can bring results for him, but as people who are really capable of doing wonderful things as a team. Preparation began a year and a half before the European Championships, and the goal was clear: the team had to be taught that their enormous advantage is pushing relentlessly throughout the whole match, constantly mobilising energy, and never giving up. With the help of the specialists of the given sport, we focussed on teaching the team how they could turn the game on their favour in the last 4-5 minutes. A Supporter team has a challenging time starting the match well, and the opponent senses this weakness, often leading to seemingly insurmountable leads early on. And since Supporters don’t trust themselves anyway, after such a bad start, they have no chance for winning. With the national team captain, we knew that a tragic start could be avoided by creating a starting team that preferred more proactive types. Then this proactive line could be replaced by the Supporter players, who slowly sink their teeth into the match, push throughout it, and who will be able to “grind” the opponent in the endgame. Well, unexpectedly, not only did they reach the European Championships, but they won their group! No matter the score, they played every match with the utmost vigour until the very last whistle, and thus they secured their position among the elite eight of Europe (ahead of teams that were ranked much higher and were supposedly much stronger). They had a chance to play for the top four, but that wasn’t a realistic goal because the team wasn’t prepared for the challenge, because preparation for that type of challenge needs to begin one year before competition. But since they greatly exceeded their initial goals of simply qualifying for the Championships, I am confident that they will exceed their new goals, too. They work as a team, in the strictest sense of the word, and this is not only allowed by the national team captain, but he actively encourages it! In addition, I would add that the team was the third youngest at the Championships in terms of average age, and there was also an 18-year-old Supporter player who not only played, but also competed extremely well among the adults. And if I take a look at the up-and-coming youth teams that we’ve already analysed, there are more players with strong Supporter personality factors who are considered to be world-class players in their age groups. They are all looking forward to becoming part of the adult team. Transition will not be a problem here!

What else can I recommend regarding the Supporter? Be patient and appreciate their team-oriented efforts from childhood. Put them in stressful situations early on, and don’t be too rough on them when they make mistakes. Let’s be aware that people are important to them, and they are terribly upset when someone else on the team is unhappy. Listen to their often seemingly unnecessary complaints because for them, it is important to be able to discuss what is hurting them. What do we get in return? Loyalty, perseverance, vigour, and respect. They will fight for our goals until the final moment. And if they can find the right routine, they can do this all at an ever-higher level for us, and for the team!

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Castles by Ants – Episode 19: A General Description of the Expert Type

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Castles by Ants – Episode 17: The Private Life of the Supporter Type