“Ultimate embarrassment” – Coping with negative media coverage in professional sports

Brazilien Deutschland semifinalI want you to remember the 9th of July 2014, the morning after the FIFA World Cup semifinal in which the Brazilian team lost 1:7 to the German team. I do not only want to remind you of this day because I am German and want to bask in my team’s glory (which I of course do), but because of the game’s psychological significance. Think back to the media coverage the morning after the game: Brazil’s loss was covered by newspapers as “The Biggest Shame in History”, “Historical Humiliation” (Brazilian newspapers) as well as “Ultimate Embarrassment” (Sky Sports).

The historical defeat against Germany as well as the intense media attention that lasted for days elicited strong reactions from the Brazilian team. Brazil performed poorly in the 3rd place play-off game against the Dutch, goalkeeper César and stand-in captain David Luiz apologized to the entire nation, coach Scolari accepted full responsibility for the team’s poor performance and resigned, and Fred announced his retirement from international football altogether.

Of course the Brazilian team’s performance during this World Cup can be attributed to many different factors: injured or banned players, the pressure of hosting the World Cup, the national political situation and organizational issues, just to name a few. However, if the Brazilian team had only been able to cope better with the intense media attention and refocus after their historical loss against Germany, they might have been able to show a better spirit and performance during the 3rd place play-off game and could have turned the negative media coverage around.

During these days of the World Cup I realized that it is of great interest for me – from a sport psychology perspective – how negative media coverage affects professional football players, and more importantly, if there is a “good” way to cope with it.

First and foremost I ask myself; are all teams affected by negative press in the same way? They are not. Norwegian researchers investigated the relation between the motivational climate in professional football teams and their perceived stress by negative press; in this context they questioned 82 professional European football players from varying teams. The researchers showed that players of teams in which the focus is to win at all costs and to be superior to others (in sport psychology we call this a performance climate) experience negative media coverage as a great stressor. On the other hand, teams that are encouraged to demonstrate their abilities and focus on their own performance – rather than focusing on outperforming other teams – do not experience negative media as such a burden.

But what can coaches – of all sports – specifically do to prevent their players from perceiving negative media attention as burdensome, potentially eliciting unfavorable reactions?

  • Encourage your players to solely focus on showing their personal best performance instead of worrying about beating opponents. After all, you cannot control what the opponent does; you can only control your own performance.
  • Avoid announcing to the press that you will win the trophy before the competition starts, as this will put undue pressure on the team and make them highly susceptible to negative media coverage. Don’t promise anything that you potentially can’t keep.
  • Rely on team debriefings after important competitions. In this context, you as a team can discuss and evaluate the “truth” about the previous competition: what went well and where are improvements necessary? Consequently, players are better able to assess or even discredit negative press about themselves and their team.

Based on in-depth interviews with three European Premier Division football goalkeepers, researchers gave athletes more great tips on how to cope with negative media attention:

  • Maintain a trusting and honest relationship with your coaches, teammates and staff. Especially during rough times and with negative press, stay in close contact and plan your next moves and your behavior in public together as a team.
  • Avoidance behavior – which is usually criticized in sport psychology – is actually recommended in this context. You should avoid reading harsh newspaper pieces or browsing the internet for negative coverage; sometimes ignorance is bliss. If you need truthful feedback about your performance, ask your coach or other trusted people in your life, they will give you the information you need.
  • Avoid giving interviews that will be published right before a competition, as this might affect your concentration and therefore performance on the field. If you give interviews, demand that the interview will be published after the competition.
  • If you do happen to read unfavorable coverage that concerns you, try to rationalize what has been written. Assess which information is true and should be considered for personal improvement and which information can be ignored (the aforementioned team-debriefing after competitions is definitely helpful in this process).
  • Try to focus on your next task and plan ahead instead of ruminating about mistakes or failures; you cannot change the past anyway.

To conclude this article I want to share my favorite strategy in dealing with media in general, provided by one of the interviewed European Premier Division goalkeepers. He stated that you cannot always avoid talking to the media as you are expected or even contractually bound to give interviews. Therefore he advised: “When people want to congratulate you, you tell them that there are some tough games left and we don’t have the championship yet, next game will be tough and some teams are getting better and better. It is all about giving [journalists] boring answers, the type of answer they don’t want to hear.” His conclusion: If you don’t want to be the next headline, be dull and boring!


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1 Response to “Ultimate embarrassment” – Coping with negative media coverage in professional sports

  1. Anders says:

    I saw the semifinal between German and Brazil and was amazed by the outcome. Also, with a background in sport psychology, I really enjoyed themes presented in your article. Thank you for sharing.

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