The Blown Call – Mental fortitude in the face of bad luck

Michael Bradley scored a brilliant equalizer to tie the game 2-2

Here is a brief summary of what happened yesterday in the World Cup, what it means philosophically, and what mentality is required for the United States players to effectively deal with it.

First, here is the game as it progressed yesterday between the United States and Slovenia. The United States played themselves into a bad situation, with poor defense in the first half that spotted Slovenia a 2-0 lead after 41 minutes. Through an impressive effort they clawed back to a 2-2 tie with two brilliant goals by Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley. The last goal came with ten minutes remaining in the match. Had the US lost this game, our World Cup would have been effectively over. Given this information, it would seem that any US fan should be thrilled with the outcome.

Unfortunately, there is a little more to the story. Substitute Maurice Edu buried a third goal with five minutes left that should have put the United States ahead 3-2. Instead, a possibly corrupt, America-hating official called the goal back without any explanation of the infraction. Replays clearly show that, if anything, Slovenia was the offending team. This created instant outrage among US fans and the world soccer community in general. The English papers are all on our side, to be sure.

What is important, however, is not what happened yesterday. It’s what happens tomorrow. There are a couple philosophical themes that emerge from the game.

– The speed in which the human psyche can adapt to new expectations.
– The place of luck and fate in human existence, and the correct way to deal with good and bad luck.

The effects of good fortune on the human psyche

I had a conversation with my brother at half time, when the United States was losing this game 2-0. At this point, it appeared that the United States would need a miracle to climb back into the game. Psychologically, I had written the US off and was prepared to wait until 2014 to have hope again. I began watching the second half out of loyalty and duty.

An hour later, the game ended in a tie, giving the US a very good chance to advance into the knockout stages. Had someone walked up to me on the street and told me this, when I was having that conversation at half time, I would have been 100% elated. The reason I was angry later is due to the remarkable speed in which my mind adapted to this good fortune.

With 15 minutes left in the game, the US was set to lose and be bounced from the World Cup. My psychological reality consisted of looking ahead to 2014, wondering if I’d be rich or married with babies the next time I got to see the US play in a meaningful World Cup game. I started having flashbacks to our 2-1 loss against Iran on June 21, 1998 (where the US hit the post 3 times).

Ten minutes later, a 2-2 tie was the new reality. Now I was praying the US would not give up a game-winner, and mentally looking ahead to Wednesday’s game with Algeria. A small part of me knew that we had been very lucky indeed to get ourselves out of a 2-0 hole in 40 minutes, but I silenced that thought because I didn’t like it. When something good happens, it’s human nature not to dwell on the alternative scenario. On D-Day, thousands of US soldiers ran up a beach completely exposed to German fire. Some of them were shot and some of them lived. The ones that lived soon had other problems.

Then, five minutes later, I was furious. We’re all aware of the studies performed on lottery winners. As soon as they adapt, psychologically, to their new reality, they generally go back to the same emotional state they were in before. In spite of the fact that, you know, this person just won the fucking lottery, they still have the ability to become angry and frustrated about other things that they cannot achieve. This is not inevitable, and a smart person should have the ability to guard against it. However, it does seem to be the default human emotion.

This is what happened when the US was robbed of their third goal. The default, hard-wired human emotion is anger, and it is necessary to express this anger. However, when that is over, it is absolutely essential to redirect our focus on the outstandingly good fortune we had to come back from a 2-0 deficit.

Defining “good luck” and “bad luck”

A good first step is to consider that this bad call may have helped the United States.

When Robert Green dropped Clint Dempsey’s long shot into the back of the net, that was a huge break. Here is an event out of the hands of anyone on the United States, where a certain outcome would have occurred 99.5% of the time. In this case, the outcome that happened was a different one, an outlier. This turn of events allowed us to tie the game 1-1 and take an unlikely draw away from this game with England. This is known as “good luck”.

Conversely, the situation described above where the US was robbed of a go-ahead goal by a poor refereeing decision, is known as “bad luck”

The important thing is that we’ll never really know whether either of these events were lucky or unlucky. There is a high probability that this goal against England was a good thing for the US, and a high probability that we would have won against Slovenia with the 3-2 lead. But from the moment these events occurred, moving forward, an entirely new branch of reality was created. Had Robert Green caught the ball, he would have picked it up and punted it. From that second the US-England game would have evolved in a completely different way. Maybe the US would have scored 2 goals in this unknown reality.

In the same vein, we’ll never know what would have happened if Edu’s goal had stood. One possibility is that the United States would have defeated Slovenia 3-2. Another possibility is that Slovenia would have tied the game 3-3. And yet another possibility is that Slovenia would have won the game 4-3. We can argue about the likelihood of these events occurring, but we will never know with 100% certainty. Soccer games have been won and lost with 2 goals in 2 minutes of injury time.

Given the opportunity to score into an empty net, most players take the chance every time (rare exceptions are due to panic and incompetence). Taking the goal probably leads to a better outcome in the game than declining it would. However, this goal can begin a chain reaction that is worse than the result from not taking the goal at all. There is often more to “good” and “bad” luck than what meets the eye.

Building will through adversity

All of us create energy with our thoughts. The nature of these thoughts dictates the nature of the energy. This energy then actualizes itself in concrete reality. Right now the United States has a game against Algeria on June 23rd, at 9AM Central Time. Where does the energy of the United States team and of its fans go? Is it focused on the poor break they suffered yesterday at the hands of a referee from Mali? Or is the energy focused on their good fortune to tie and still be alive in this cup?

The latter attitude is absolutely needed if the United States is to play with the intensity needed to destroy the Algerians. The US can be astoundingly talented on the attack and beat some great teams. What often prevents this is are mental mistakes and and poor teamwork, or in others words a deficiency of will. This terrible call could yet be a stroke of good luck if it instills the proper mental attitude into the United States soccer team.

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