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Castles by Ants – Episode 9: Modifications from the Athlete’s Environment

An ongoing series about psychology in the world of sport.

This factor cannot be underestimated in the lives of athletes! When an athlete moves to a new club or makes the national team, most of the time they will be in a completely unfamiliar environment. And this is not about the coach, management, or teammates right now! Most of all, we talk about the fans, sponsors, and top executives who want to serve these fans and sponsors. New environments require new forms of behaviour. American clubs are — by the way — great at mapping and analysing players before signing them. They not only focus on whether the prospective player meets the expectations professionally, but they also place great emphasis on whether the new signing can fit into the image and brand accepted by the fans and the city. In Europe, this phenomenon, or at least the basics of it, can mostly be found in football, and clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris Saint-Germain are masters of its application. They do not just do this for the player’s soul — though it plays a vital role — but also to increase the team’s revenue. Talent is not the deciding factor, because the point is to see on-brand characters on the team. If a team’s character is “likeable”, then only players with a significant “Supporter” factor will mesh with the team, because this personality type is empathic, team-oriented, unselfish, and communicates well with people; so, a lovable character.

A perfect example is Liverpool FC and the case of Jürgen Klopp. He is a Supporter professional, and there are no superstars on the team, only above-average players. Even José Mourinho admitted that the key to their success was the Supporter environment that Klopp and the management had built over 4 years, replacing a team that suffered with big names and their mentalities. The senior team dines with the juniors and the staff, everyone knows everyone, and they celebrate even the lunch lady’s birthday so that everyone feels that the team success is personal success.

In addition, such characters can be relied on in the long run because they are loyal, stable, predictable, and they have humility for the team’s long-term goals, even if these goals do not coincide with their individual goals. A perfect example is Michael Jordan. The first time I mentioned him as an example of the “Supporter” personality, the non-professional audience —businesspeople — was completely shocked. For them Jordan was a man of power, will, determination, and other qualities that they could not identify with the “Supporter” personality type, which for businesspeople, does not represent a top athlete’s personality. By the way, this has been a fundamental misunderstanding for an awfully long time even among sports professionals: hard-working players who are not blessed with star characteristics at the start of their careers have been undervalued. In many cases, this is still the case today even among very high-level sports executives. Then, at the EHF Scientific Conference (where the RISE system debuted in front of a very select team of professionals), an example came up — not from me, but from a specialist who had a personal relationship with the famous American basketball player. Obviously, it was meant to be a sneaky question, and at most he was shocked how we knew Jordan so well, though I saw him play only once. I also explained that in the case of an athlete if we have a good amount of “online material”, obviously we cannot draw a complex analysis, but we can draw conclusions about their main personality type.

The biography and the career paths shown on Wikipedia, game film on YouTube, and social media use clearly identify the primary and often the secondary personality types of the “original personality type”. Jordan was a fantastic face for the Chicago Bulls because he was perfectly likeable with his “Supporter” personality. The fans loved him, he gained love and respect as a human, and he devoted his loyalty to the team of Chicago for 14 years. Let’s just say he wasn’t the job-hopping “Individual” type. As a counterexample, we have Paul George, who just turned 29 and has already played for three teams in a relatively short period. George is a six-time All-Star, so his performance was never a problem. But who loved him as a human, and how much? These are different questions. Of course, this is not a modification! It would, however, be one if Paul George would sign with the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. In that case, George would have two options. The first is to try to fit in with the team and the environment, meaning that he would start modifying his “Ruler/Expert” self, which is about objective facts, purpose, and not necessarily human relationships — to put it nicely — and, of course, building his life based on his own interests. He would need to modify himself in the direction of the “Supporter”, which was accepted in Chicago, and thus he would become a pleasant figure who could maintain this facade until losing his temper during the first crisis. The second option would be to act according to his personality from the very first moment, meaning he would not be liked in the city, he would jeopardise ticket sales and sponsorships, but the team would get an All-Star. Since the second solution is not an option for an American professional basketball team, he would be signed only if the team truly needed a Ruler-Expert performance. If we were in Europe, maybe he would be signed, and George would decide to “behave” because of money. Well, that would also be a personality modification. Many professionals, coaches, and players themselves underestimate the risks posed by changing teams if the player’s personality is unknown. It often happens that a player, whose performance was brilliant in the previous team, simply collapses with their new team. Of course, coaches try to give a reasonable explanation for this based on experience, but when they cannot find the right answer, they will find it by looking towards personality.

This type of personality modification is even more critical for national teams. After all, the national team consists of players who perform well in different clubs with their own personalities or assumed behaviours. Of course, the roles reorganise themselves. Yet only some national team captains realise that they are playing with a shuffled deck. For example, if you have a “Ruler” player who is clearly a leader in their own club, they are in big trouble when it comes to the national team. Most likely, they can’t acquire the same leadership position, and that’s a problem for them. If more than one of these leader characters are added to the team, then the inefficiency of that group can be guaranteed. I’d like to clear up a misunderstanding: this statement is not true for every player who is a leader in the club! This is only the case with the “Ruler”. If in a club — for example, Michael Jordan with the Bulls — the star is a Supporter right from the start, their integration into the national team is not such a challenge. But it is not smooth. These players strongly prefer familiar atmospheres, familiar faces, practice courts, and their typical team roles. So, for them, novelty is the enemy. And even if a Supporter player is a star at their club and is a team player, they still need considerable help adjusting a new situation. Although I have only mentioned two contrary examples, I hope it is apparent that in case of a national team, standardised solutions for all players are not only unnecessary, but also dangerous! In order for players to survive this shift without having to put on masks that can lead to a personality change, the team must be selected according to an appropriate personality direction. Of course, this means we may sacrifice some talented stars, but we get better results in the end. The best performance of the national team is now achieved by the clever national team captains who select their team based on personality. Many captains do so instinctively, and others do so with the help of precise psychological systems; both are trying to solve the same problem. But it is apparent that focussing on the players’ personalities and mental states pays huge dividends. For example, the Norway women’s handball team that dominated for over a decade: they intentionally went in the “Supporter” direction and selectively utilised “Ruler” characters.


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Castles by Ants – Episode 8: ATHLETE MODIFICATION

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Castles by Ants – Episode 10: Modifications from the Athlete’s Personal Life