At Monday’s press conference at the Castle in Owings Mills, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who was not in the best of spirits after Sunday’s 22-17 loss to the 3-6 Seattle Seahawks, scoffed at a reporter who asked if the Ravens might have tripped over a psychological hurdle in their three road losses.
"I'm not a psychologist,” Harbaugh said. “I think what you do is you look at football. … We have to coach better, we have to play better, and we'll win those three football games. But we've won some other football games that people didn't expect us to win, against some really good football teams. So tie the psychology together on that for me. I don't have time to be looking at that.”
I’m not a psychologist either, but I do have a lot of free time on my hands. So I contacted Dr. Jessica Mohler, a clinical and sports psychologist at the U.S. Naval Academy, to ask her about the challenges that athletes and teams face when they play a team that is perceived to be a lesser opponent after winning an emotional game against a quality opponent. (We did not discuss the Ravens specifically.)
According to Mohler, there is an appraisal process by athletes when facing an opponent and their bodies and minds act appropriately. Teams don’t always play to the level of competition, but it does happen.
“In that appraisal process, there is an emotional and physiological response,” said Mohler, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “So we feel a certain way and our body responds in a certain way. … Then we see the outcome, which is behavior, performance, decision-making. It really relies on this physiological response that occurs. You will get more pumped up for a competitive team and you will have a more ideal emotional response and physiological response and then you will perform at a higher level.”
Mohler said that when it comes to getting the best performance out of athletes, the challenge of the competition has to match the skill of the athlete, and both the challenge and the athlete’s skills have to be at a high level. Essentially, athletes tend to perform their best when they’re challenged. When athletes get pumped up, their focus increases (unless they get too fired up, which can lead to anxiety). Facing a challenging team also affects team cohesion as players often bond together in tough times.
But there’s no prediction process. If a team scores an emotional win over, say, a division rival from Ptitsburgh, there’s no guarantee that it would follow it up with a poor performance the next week.
“Every team and every athlete has an ideal performance state, which can be affected by all different types of environmental factors,” including the team’s appraisal of its opponent, Mohler said. “It could be by memory, the previous game’s performance. It can be affected by crowd, travel time, time zone, familiarity with the stadium -- that could be the locker room or even the playing surface. And it also has to do with the complexity of the task. This is often related to the home team advantage concept. We know it exists, that home teams have an advantage over away teams in terms of outcomes.”
So what would Mohler advise that team to do to avoid another face-plant against a lesser opponent?
“One of the first places I’d go is the recognition, understanding what is going on in the environment and what is happening with the team leading to their best outcomes -- and then replicating it. At high levels of sports, they know this. They do it very effectively, typically,” she said, adding, “Wins and losses aren’t easily explained by any one factor. … Every sports situation requires different demands.”