′The fear of failure can be greater for a defending champion′ | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 28.06.2018
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'The fear of failure can be greater for a defending champion'

Germany is just the latest defending World Cup champion to fail to advance to the knockout stage of the following tournament. Sports psychologist Jens Kleinert spoke to DW about the "curse of the World Cup champion."

DW: Is it generally the case that any given athlete's hunger for success drops off after reaching his or her ultimate goal?

Prof. Jens Kleinert: It is true that we value things that we have already achieved differently than things that we have not yet achieved. If my overarching dream is to become world champion, and I have already achieved this once, then the drive to do so, the fire, is gone. And these are the kinds of words some of the players have used.  So in that case, one needs to change one's motivation.

The second point is that if I've done already achieved something, I run the risk of falling into a defensive way of thinking. In other words, I am already champion of the world, so now I have to defend the title. This means, things can only get worse, and I stand only to lose. This is a way of thinking that focuses on defeat. Of course, if someone is thinking like this, they can easily become timid and unsure of themselves. 

So in other words, the fear of failure is greater for a defending champion?

The likelihood of someone being afraid of making mistakes and losing is definitely greater. But it doesn't have to be that way. You can change a defensive attitude into a winning one. But to do this, you have to set new goals. Just winning the World Cup is no longer enough.

FIFA Fußball-WM 2018 in Russland | Deutschland verliert gegen Südkorea - Enttäuschung (Reuters/M. Dalder)

It's all over: Mesut Özil after Germany were eliminated by South Korea

So can you train this hunger for success?

(Laughs). You can not train the hunger for success, but you can teach yourself to focus on the right and essential goals. For example, you could set a goal of helping the new, young players win their first World Cup. Then the second World Cup (for the veterans) would get a completely new and enhanced meaning. I guess you could see this as a kind of training, but it all takes place in the brain.

The 2014 World Cup champions seemed paralyzed out there on the pitch in Russia. Players like Toni Kroos, who performed well in the Champions League final, trotted around the pitch like a player in an oldtimers' game.  Is there a psychological explanation for this?

FIFA Fußball-WM 2018 in Russland | Deutschland vs. Südkorea (Reuters/M. Dalder)

Toni Kroos can't believe it either

Interestingly enough, some players said afterwards that the fire in the belly, the unconditional will to win was missing. But to put this down to the 'curse of the world champion,' isn't sufficient. When the will to win, the fire, is gone from a team, there are always a number of factors. It may have something to do with the makeup of the team or with the fact that the players as a collective don't really believe in their own abilities.

They've had a lot of negative games in the past, in which they didn't experience success as a team. Maybe this one of the reasons why the players seemed paralyzed. 'Actually, we now need to bring our A-game, but we haven't been able to do it for the past few months.' This is the king of thing that may have been going through their minds.

There can be a lot of different factors, including the types of characters on the team. I cannot expect fire from a Toni Kroos because that's just not him. If you accept this premise, then it is unfair to say that there wasn't enough commitment from him. He played like he does at Real Madrid, but the difference is, that there he has the right people around him. That is the point. The composition of the team needs to be such that the various characters motivate and drive each other forward. (In Russia) there were too few players who were able to do this.

Professor Jens Kleinert specializes in motivational psychology as well as research into team and group dynamics. The 53-year-old Kleinert is head of the Psychological Institute at the German Sport University Cologne.

The interview was conducted by Stefan Nestler.

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