“They may have the 10-point gap, but they’ve got a big ask to stay at 10-points for the rest of the season, and I don’t think they’ve got the team to do that right now.” Tony Smith, owner of Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) team the Sheffield Steelers may regret making this comment given that the Belfast Giants, whom he was attempting to break down, have won all 16 league games since (true as of 08/03/14) and even clinched the Championship with a record-breaking ten games remaining.

From this, I wondered how it could be that these words had a positive effect on the Giants when their intention was quite the opposite. Other sporting situations where the desired effect occurred include the famous intimidation by Sir Alex Ferguson on Kevin Keegan (see the video of Keegan’s famous “I would love it” outburst). In this case, Ferguson claimed that other teams did not up their game against Keegan’s Newcastle the same way that they would with Manchester United. The result? Newcastle’s 12-point gap disappeared and United won the league. Success for Ferguson!

From a psychology view, one basic social psychology theory struck me as important in the distinction between these two situations: attribution theory or Rotter’s (1954) locus of control. This separates when we believe that the outcome of what we are doing, for example in a sporting event, is completely in our control (internal locus of control), or is down to other people or factors (such as luck – external locus of control). In Tony Smith’s statement, he placed the fate of the Giants in their own hands by saying that their team was not up to the challenge. On the other hand though, with Ferguson’s comments, he led Keegan’s Newcastle squad to believe that it was the work rate of the other teams in the league which had put them in this high position.

Looking at Ferguson’s approach, he criticised the effort of the opposing teams when coming up against Newcastle. Because he chose to criticise their effort, which can be easily improved, rather than their ability (Rees, Ingledew & Hardy, 2003), this may have helped not only to de-motivate Newcastle, but also to motivate the other teams to improve his opinion. However in general sports psychology, this attribution of failure to lack of effort may be problematic in that if failure is still seen when effort is increased, then it will be put down to a lack of ability (Covington & Omelich, 1979). The concept of control is again evident here when effort can be controlled while ability cannot, and this then brings us back to the importance of an internal locus of control for a sportsperson or team. It is suggested by Ingledew (1996) then that because internal factors can also be out of our control (e.g. our genetic potential for athleticism), that this should be the emphasis in sport motivation. In the two examples mentioned above though, it is easy to see that this exception makes no difference to how the two situations differ.

Much research has also looked at factors influencing attributions, and social context has been seen as important. In this case, Rejeski and Brawley (1983) suggest that when attributions are made public, they are done so in order to prevent embarrassment and improve one’s own image, and therefore may not truly reflect the thoughts of the individual. Looking at Smith’s comments again, application of this finding implies that by attempting to put down the Giants, Smith’s own Steelers get “off the hook” from criticism by avoiding the fact that while the Giants (supposedly) could not keep up their form, the Steelers had no such form to begin with.

In conclusion then, it seems that in order to successfully put off your opponents, Ferguson had the correct idea by making Newcastle feel that winning the league was out of their control and instead would be determined by the other teams. Smith’s comments in the EIHL however, placed the Giants firmly in control, where they could attribute any future successes to their own ability and consistency rather than the failings of their opposition. However, the public setting of both these comments may mean that neither instigator believed either of their comments but their intentions were of a similar nature.