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The Surprising Role of Emotion (and Flukes) in Sports

A Super Bowl Case Study on The Surprising Role of Emotion (and Flukes) in Sports


Have you been following NFL football?  Did you watch the Super Bowl 50?  If so, you may have been shocked that the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers.  Most people had their money on the Panthers, and many believed they would take a huge lead on the Broncos right from the start of the game.


Perhaps the most shocking moment of the game however was when the Panthers’ quarterback, Cam Newton, simply gave up in the fourth quarter—at the very least, he appeared to.


Some people might say that was an exaggeration, but it was a critical moment, and Newton’s honour was on the line.  He’d fumbled the ball, and at a critical moment, he failed to jump into the fray to try to regain possession. 


It was a humiliating moment for Newton, one that may even have cost his team the win.  There is no guarantee that the Panthers would have won had he jumped in there, but it certainly would have at least made it a possibility.  As it was, he may as well have raised a white flag and said, “I forfeit.” 


What on earth happened?  Who knows?  Broncos’ linebacker DeMarcus Ware suggested on PFT Live that perhaps Newton simply didn’t see the ball.  If he was correct, it might have been a simple fluke.


If you watch the replay, however, it appears as if Newton actually deliberately dodges back from the action, as if he made a calculated decision not to participate.  Maybe he didn’t want to get injured for a game he felt was already doomed for a loss.  We still don’t know, because he fled the press after the game was over and refused to answer any questions (not a great sign concerning his motives).



In any case, even though we still don’t know whether Newton’s decision not to leap into the fray was an emotional choice driven by despair or a fluke because he couldn’t see the ball, this whole incident demonstrates that sometimes what a game hinges on is literally a moment in time—a moment where something completely unexpected and sometimes inexplicable happens. 


No one could have guessed that Cam Newton would pull back at a crucial moment during the Super Bowl.  But if you were watching him and you knew his personality, you could guess his nerves were frayed, which would leave him vulnerable to mistakes.


Moments like these cost punters money.  But there are a few takeaways here that could help you out going forward. 


1-Flukes and emotional decisions are impossible to predict, but they often decide the outcomes of games.

2-You can study statistics all day long and not get any insight into them.  You have to study players to understand the psychology of mistakes like these—their expressions, their body language, what they say and do.

3-There is no such thing as a “sure bet.”  Even though you think you know exactly how a game is going to go down, you sometimes lose.  In fact, it happens quite often, even to the sharps.


To learn more about how intangibles can impact a team’s game play, be sure to also check out my article on How Does the Press Impact a Team’s Morale? where I continue to break down the psychological factors which cost the Panthers Super Bowl 50.


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