FortKnightley: Psychological Advantage or Unsportsmanlike? 

Felsted’s Director of Sport Blog ‘FortKnightley’ looks at sporting issues that are relevant today and will leave you all with something to think about. Follow on Twitter @dirfelstedsport 

FortKnightley: Psychological Advantage or Unsportsmanlike? 

On the 20th June 1987, New Zealand beat France 29 - 9 in the inaugural Rugby World Cup Final. I remember the Kiwi tries were celebrated at best with a hand shake or pat on the back as the players jogged back to the half way line to resume the game. David Kirk who lifted the trophy was one of those try scorers and I wonder what the players of yesteryear make of the hollering and hooting when the opposition knock the ball on, win a scrum or simply win the battle of the breakdown. The change can be seen in other sports and when Bob Willis took 8-43 in the famous Headingley Test Match he just turned around and walked back to his mark, which was some distance away to be fair. In more recent times, Imran Tanir sets off on a lap of honour each wicket, possibly replicating Willis’s run up!

Professionalism and the need to promote sport as an exciting product has seen the rugby handshake replaced with mass celebrations mid-game. It is also not usual to see the odd tap on the head in a sarcastic manner to congratulate the player on their error. I guess the theory is to get into the heads of the opposition and gain a psychological advantage? Boost your self efficacy and damage the opposition mind set. Steve Waugh labelled it as mental disintegration when referring to the well known practice of letting the batsman know it was 11 against 1. 

Maro Itoji when asked about celebrating small wins said, “I have a contrasting view to the premise of your question,” Itoje politely responded to the charge. “When there is a celebration of a small moment or small victory within the game it almost always has nothing to do with the opposition.
“The opposition doesn't cross my mind. I try as much as possible not to waste any energy on the opposition. My energy is towards my team, it is to celebrate my teammate doing something remarkable, it is to celebrate my teammate doing something that we are trying to encourage.
“So, it actually has nothing to do with the opposition. It is more about championing a value or behaviour that we respect as a team.”
The question is whether these histrionics do indeed chip away at the opposition and give you the extra 1% you are after in the game? Can it be argued that in trying so hard to win a celebratory moment and move yourself up the analysts data sheet for positive plays, you are actually being detrimental to what you are looking to achieve? I do wonder whether England’s recent penalty count is connected to this eagerness to be a hero of the small wins? It seems now very much an accepted part of the game and it is certainly not the domain of one team or couple of players. Do players and judges of sport think celebrating your own small wins is acceptable, but celebrating an error by your opponent is less acceptable, or is it all fair game today to gain that edge? It is not out of the question to hear a crowd, when we had them, to clap a double fault in tennis when rooting for the returner of serve. This would have certainly been frowned upon not so long ago. 

It has certainly crept into the grass roots game as players and especially youngsters look to imitate the professionals. Is this behaviour deemed unsportsmanlike or now very much part of giving teams the psychological edge during a contest? Is it making the game more watchable and attractive to the next generation? It was only last week that Jamal Ford-Robinson was celebrating winning a scrum while the scrum was still in progress. Finger raised to ensure the analyst team got the right man and it went down very well on social media platforms. The lack of crowds have certainly made this practice stand out and I guess it is here to stay? Sport evolves all the time and this is generally a positive, but do you feel that celebrating an opponent’s knock on in rugby, if deemed a knock on, is an acceptable part of the game and something we feel comfortable seeing in school sport? 

I am yet to be convinced that this is giving sides the edge, but I do understand that some players will feel it may help them stay at optimum level of performance? However, there are other strategies that can do this. It might just be that I am being old fashioned in my thinking and this is a key element of developing winners, passion and interest in sports today? 

Charlie Knightley
Director of Sport