Mamma Mia! Italy’s football team failed to qualify to the next 2018 World Cup for the first time in 60 years. The front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s leading sport newspaper, pictured a very desperate Gigi Buffon, captain and goalkeeper, and in bold letters the word “The End”. The disappointment and the anger are still fresh, and it is still at this time a very touchy subject especially in a country where football is considered a religion. However, it is important to talk about it without trying to point fingers and finding someone to blame but instead as a learning lesson. Put aside the coach, his choices and the players, Italy were not a cohesive powerful team and the turning point was the 3-0 loss against Spain.

Now that the Italian football team will try to pick itself up renovating players and staff, there is so much that can be learned from the best teams after Spain’s football domination where they won the European Championship in 2008 and 2012, and the World Cup in 2010, and Germany latest victory at the 2014 World Cup. What makes these two teams successful is not just the talent and the skills that they have, but also the mindset, team cohesion and unity.

Germany for example is known for its selfless attitude. The football team is known as Die Mannschaft which translates to “The Team”.  Yes, there are many talented and remarkable players in the squad however not one of them tries to be in the limelight. The whole team is in the limelight, there are not individual stars. After Germany thrashed Brazil 7:1 in the 2014 World Cup semi-final, the tweet “Portugal has Ronaldo, Brazil has Neymar, Argentina has Messi, but Germany has a team!” went viral. Their cohesiveness and cooperation not only made them bring home optimal results, but it was also debilitating for the opponents.

So, young sports teams (not just football) that want to strive to success and perform better need to work on their unity and cohesiveness. A starting point can be drawn from the psychological theory of Emotional Contagion. This theory first developed by Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson (1994) suggests that consciously or unconsciously an individual is able to influence the emotions of others through verbal and nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues include touches, body language, facial expressions, speech patterns and vocal tones. The contagion happens through imitation. When you see someone expressing an emotion, you will tend to mimic that expression causing you to feel the emotion in itself. You will feel happier around people that are happy and smile a lot and sadder around depressed and more negative people. The emotions can have a powerful impact among team members, and can be influential in the functioning of the team affecting performance.

The theory was first studied within a business environment by Barsade (2002) at Yale University. Participants were asked to participate in a mock managerial exercise where they had to discuss how to allocate a sum of bonus money to their employees. They had to pretend to be a head of a department and they had to give a small presentation supporting why the candidate from their respective department deserved the bonus. Before the start of the exercise they had to rate their mood and how they felt. To control the group’s emotions the confederate had to act a particular emotion: cheerful enthusiasm (confederate was happy, energetic and optimistic), serene warmth (calmer attitude emitting warmth and peacefulness), hostile irritability (confederate was frustrated, hostile, impatient and irritable) and depressed sluggishness (confederate was unhappy but in a more dull and lethargic way).  To be energetic he made a lot of eye contact and had a strong tone of voice. The participants were not aware of the conditions. At the end of the exercise, they were asked to report how they felt during and after. The results showed what was predicted: the confederate’s emotion did have an effect on the group members. Supporting the theory of emotional contagion, the group’s mood changed adopting the one of the confederate. Barsade also found that contagion of positive emotions resulted in more cooperation, lower conflicts and increased task performance.

If the Emotional Contagion has an impact on performance amongst team members, then it must have the same effect on sports teams. The idea is that when the team’s spirit is upbeat, positive and energetic it will influence the mood of the single players.

Totterdell (2000) monitored the mood of four professional cricket teams and how that impacted performance. The cricketers were given pocket computers where they had to record their mood and how they felt they were performing individually and as a team. Measures were taken before, after the game and during the breaks. The findings support the one’s of Barsade. When the team was in an overall good mood as a consequence the individual players were also happier and more energetic. Players felt that they performed a lot better when everyone in the team was contented. Interestingly, this was mainly found in fielding situations when the players were all engaged in the same activity and they needed to coordinate and communicate more, rather than in batting situations where the effort was individual.

Some sceptics might say that the players were happier because they performed better rather than the other way around. To support the evidence that emotions are contagious, Moll, Jordet and Pepping (2010) monitored the behavior of football players after kicking a penalty during a penalty shootout during the European Championships and World Cup from 1972 to 2008. Penalty shootouts are known to be very stressful for everyone: players, coaches, team staff and even the fans as they determine the outcome of a game. The study conducted by Moll showed that there is a link between the player’s post-performance behavior and the final outcome of the penalty shootout. In fact, when the successful penalty was celebrated with big smiles, the expanding of the chest, moving the arms and raising the fists, those players were part of the team that ultimately won the shootout. Instead, those players who looked down after successfully scoring a penalty were not part of the winning team. The celebratory movements were then a sign of achievement and happiness that was transmitted onto the next player of the same team that was up for the penalty. So yes, to answer the sceptics, the players celebrated because they performed well and scored but the findings show evidence that the positive emotion of happiness and pride influenced the performance of the next teammate positively.

Another interesting finding from the study was that it is more beneficial for the team if the players celebrate the goals together rather than with the audience or by themselves. Dr Gert-Jan Pepping said that “If you cheer facing the supporters after you’ve scored a penalty, the supporters will get wildly enthusiastic. That’s all very fine, but they’re not the ones who have to perform at that moment. Your team members on the pitch are. It’s very important to celebrate together — that’s what makes scoring contagious.”

This doesn’t only apply to football, in fact if you ever watch a volleyball match you will notice that the teams tend to celebrate every single point scored with a team huddle, high fives and back slaps. So, if you consider that to win a match you need to win three sets out of five with each set being 25 points, that will equate to 75 possible team huddles, and many more high fives and back slaps. In basketball as well it is common that players celebrate shoots with fist bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, half hugs and head grabs.

Kraus, Huang and Keltner (2010) conducted a study on the relationship between touch behavior for each of the 30 NBA teams and performance. Performance was not limited to number of points scored but also rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, turnovers and shot attempts. The findings did show that a higher number of touches between team members was linked to greater performance. The two most-touched bonded teams were the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, two of the league’s top teams. Of the Boston Celtics, Kevin Garnett was the star of the study as he reached out and touched four guys within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw. According to Kraus and colleagues, the touches represented a powerful enabler of trust between team members, and increased cooperative and interdependent behaviors, essential to the functioning of the team. Without realizing the basketball players were communicating positive emotions through the physical touches.

From these studies and from the theory of Emotional Contagion, some practical implications can be drawn in order for young sports teams to enhance their performance and get on the right track to achieve greater results.

As an athlete you should:

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT. Understand what mood you are in and if you see it is not beneficial for the team or for your own performance try to change it. Think about something that makes you happy or laugh. Force a smile and try to hold it. You will see that you will feel better and that will impact how the others feel as well.

SPREAD YOUR EMOTIONS. Be a team player and create the best atmosphere. Smile a lot, give high fives, make eye contact with everyone, be energetic.

CELEBRATE, CELEBRATE AND CELEBRATE EVEN MORE. No matter what sport you play, try to celebrate every single achievement. If it is a point scored do a team huddle, if a player has made a great pass, or a remarkable action let him/her know! This will boost the player self-esteem and impact positively the performance for the rest of the game. This not only will help spreading emotions but will also put the opponents under pressure.

BE A LEADER. If you are the captain or hold some leadership role within the team, hopefully your squad trust you and listen to you more. In that case, you have to be even more aware of the power of emotions and the impact on the team performance. Be ready to spread positivity and keep an eye out for those who give out negative vibes. These players might need a pep talk, or even a smile, a high five or a verbal praise.

BE A TEAM PLAYER. You might not be the captain but you are still part of the team. Avoid playing for your individual glory, instead be a team member. When Manuel Neuer, German’s football goalkeeper, in an interview was congratulated by the reporter for an amazing save, he first gave credit to the defence and the ability of his team players.

A team’s coach and staff also play a crucial role in creating the perfect environment that supports positivity and stimulating better performance.

CREATE A POSITIVE CULTURE. The coach is not only responsible to train the team but also to create cultural values and norms within the team. This means that the players should be aware of what behavior and emotional expressions are acceptable underlying that aggressive and negative behavior won’t be tolerated.

However, it is important not to ignore the other side of the coin of the Emotional Contagion theory.

Some researchers have gone deeper and applied emotional contagion to other aspect of sport and performance.  O’Neill (2008) has researched the concept of injury contagion so whether an injury in one teammate would cause an emotional response of anxiety or fear on the other team members. The idea is that through emotional contagion, if you see someone from your own sport experiencing a bad injury then you will be affected by an emotional trauma. Specifically, O’Neill investigated whether the performance of alpine skiers would be impacted. The findings showed that after seeing someone breaking their knee and ligament the athletes made tactical changes. These changes had a negative impact on their performance as they put them more at risk of getting injured themselves. Psychological tests have also revealed that the athletes used more words and sentences related to fear in their normal dialogue after the traumatic experience.

A practical implication from this study can also be drawn for the coach and team staff:

BE AWARE. Because Emotional Contagion can have a dark side such as injury contagion. When an athlete gets injured, the team staff needs to keep an eye on the others’ reactions and emotional responses to it. Staff should be available if the athlete needs to talk, especially if traumatized by the injury and fear for himself.

The road to success is definitely not easy and it won’t be free of obstacles and drawbacks. Italy might feel devastated now, but this is not the end of Italian football. Similarly, Spain and Germany didn’t have it easy, but what makes them successful is an incredible cohesion and a solid team structure. Applying the theory of Emotional Contagion could possibly be the first brick towards the edification of a better team, as it eases the path to a greater performance.

ReferencesShow all

Barsade, S. G. (2002). The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47(4), 644-675.

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current directions in psychological science, 2(3), 96-100.

Kraus, M. W., Huang, C., & Keltner, D. (2010). Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance: an ethological study of the NBA. Emotion, 10(5), 745.

Moll, T., Jordet, G., & Pepping, G. J. (2010). Emotional contagion in soccer penalty shootouts: Celebration of individual success is associated with ultimate team success. Journal of sports sciences, 28(9), 983-992.

Totterdell, P. (2000). Catching moods and hitting runs: Mood linkage and subjective performance in professional sport teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(6), 848.