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Disappointment, in football and life

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Iris Boutros

Iris Boutros

Sunday was a bad day for Manchester United footballer Wayne Rooney. After his side’s crushing defeat to Liverpool at their stadium Old Trafford, the striker said: “It’s a nightmare. It’s one of the worst days I’ve ever had in football.” Disappointment can be hard to get over and often has a lasting impact. This is true in football and in life.

The 28 year-old star has been a professional footballer since he was 16, and has since made over 500 Premier League appearances. Starting at Everton Football Club at age nine, the striker has easily played over 800 matches, and in his 20-year official career has had thousands of days of football. Yet Sunday was one of the worst of those days.

Interestingly, this is not the first time Manchester United fell to Liverpool by three goals. On 14 March, 2009 the team lost to Liverpool 4-1, also at home at Old Trafford. But Rooney’s post-game emotions then were not as they were on Sunday.

In the 2008-2009 season, Manchester United was the Premier League champion for a third year in a row and for the 11th time since the establishment of the league in 1992. At the time, the club was led by Sir Alex Ferguson, who won 38 trophies for United, including all 13 of the club’s Premier League titles.

In contrast to 2009 when United lost to Liverpool by the same deficit, the club currently places seventh in the league. The team may not finish among the top four in the table, meaning United would have to win the UEFA Champions League to secure a spot for next year, an elite league the club has been playing in for over two decades.

The vicious cycle down

Rooney’s disappointment with Sunday’s loss is likely a reflection of his perceptions about his club’s chances for finishing the season as the champions they have become accustomed to being, and not simply about another three point loss to Liverpool at home.

Key to the Rooney’s disappointment is likely the leadership change, where David Moyes replaced Ferguson as United’s manager after his retirement last year. For certain, a loss is a loss and it is always more fun to win. It is probably easier to lose if you are at the top of a league than if you rank seventh and are unaccustomed to that standing. But a loss that ranks as one of the worst days in football is about something bigger.

When asked about Sunday’s defeat by Liverpool, Moyes said he was at a loss to explain his side’s poor performance. He added: “It is difficult to explain it. It wasn’t what we expected.” Rooney, who last month signed a new 5 year contract, worth £300,000 per week, said he wasn’t concerned about his team’s recent descent, although it is most probably on the five-time Premier League champion’s mind.

Where disappointment becomes more problematic than just feelings is when it changes perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours. If Rooney is or were to lose confidence in Moyes’ ability to lead Manchester United, it may affect his ability or willingness to listen to his manager or his performance on the football pitch. Having problems with a team player, in turn, makes managing more difficult. The concern becomes that the cycle becomes vicious, a downward negative interaction between feelings, perceptions, attitudes and behaviors until performance plummets.

The benefit of the doubt

Whether it is a football club manager, a spouse, friend, or even a public figure, disappointment is hard to get over. Luckily for Wayne Rooney, he has 300,000 reasons this week to get over his. But he will likely be looking to judge his manager’s response to this loss that amounted to one of the worst days of thousands in football for him. The tricky thing about disappointment is that it is harder to give someone a fresh chance afterwards.

In everyday interactions, this phenomenon is clear. When someone is really disappointed by another, it is difficult to see that person in the same way again. Hypotheses and theories on the motivations that drove the action that led to the disappointment begin to develop, some good and some bad. In all likelihood, future interactions will reference this disappointment, either consciously or not. Relations after are constrained when perceptions of who the other really is and what they are capable of have changed.

Changes in perception make giving the benefit of the doubt or even absorbing new information difficult, even if that new information would positively affect perceptions. Eventually, if perceptions change attitudes and behaviours, soon after interactions worsen in a downward spiral. Think about a variety of types of relationships, personal or professional, that started off great until there was some clash that resulted in disappointment. Often times, soon after are the misunderstandings of the other’s behaviour and intentions that worsen interactions. At the extreme, these iterative changes can make dealing with the other impossible.

This cycle happens in life and is difficult to undo. If a job candidate has been disappointed by the results of an unrewarding job search, perceptions and attitudes about the likelihood of getting a job change. Eventually, it is likely that behaviours will also change, and the job candidate might give up or put less effort into a search. If a worker is disappointed about not being acknowledged or rewarded for hard work, perceptions and attitudes about the benefits of hard work will change and behaviour changes will likely follow. If a voter has voted over a dozen times in a few short years, taking time and maybe belabouring emotionally over the decision, perhaps for a desire to see more stability in the country, and there has been disappointment time and time again, perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours are likely to change.

Wayne Rooney’s club lost to Liverpool by three goals in 2009 and again on Sunday. In 2009, he was a three-time champion playing under one of the most successful managers in the history of football. Now, his team ranks seventh and he may be for the first time excluded from playing in the elite Champions League he has played in for a decade. His strong feelings of disappointment, remarking that Sunday was one of his worst days in football, indicates a change in perception, despite the same outcome. The big question for his manager Moyes is whether he should expect a change in attitude and behaviours. Most people cannot stop a disappointment from changing perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours. It is indeed difficult. Undoing this cycle is even more difficult and takes a deliberate effort. With so many disappointments these days, my questions is how far down is the downward spiral going to go?

Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros.

About the author

Iris Boutros

Iris Boutros

Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros


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