RISE and the Psychology of Sport

The RISE system, its findings regarding its applicability in sport, and future opportunities for its application were presented (for the first time in a public forum) during the scientific conference of the EHF (European Handball Federation) in November, 2017.

The presentation was a resounding success, garnering a lot of attention and raising numerous questions, which clearly showed the increasing need in the area of sports for a psychology-based system focused on decision-making mechanisms.

The psychology of sport

The presence of psychology in sport has become indispensable, of which no one needs convincing anymore. Sport psychology has grown to be an independent, well-respected specialty, which in western cultures, particularly overseas, is considered indispensable for achieving success in sports. There are certain countries and sports, of course, where the presence of sport psychology is much more prevalent, while its applications in assessing other situations and areas is nowhere near as inevitable. Its status in Hungary is moderate. Although everyone has been aware for years, or even decades, that great achievements are almost impossible without managing the psyche, applying that theory in practice is very challenging; the reasons for this are mostly sport psychologists themselves. In many cases, the techniques have been applied in certain sports or by athletes and sports specialists, but they didn’t experience any significant improvement in results. When there was some improvement – and this is an even bigger problem – the most aggressively self-advocating psychologists immediately ‘shoved’ their way into the foreground, trying to reap all the benefits. (Naturally, when the results were nothing to boast about, they remained quiet in the background.) This has resulted in a significant resistance among sport specialists, although they continue to acknowledge the necessity for sport psychology. If we look abroad (and I have worked with many sport psychologists and have had deep conversations with them), we can see that the culture and the situation is very different. The really good specialists remain modest and quiet. On one occasion, after a half-hour conversation, a sport psychologist reluctantly admitted to having casually contributed to his country winning a ‘mere’ 38 Olympic medals — he also immediately followed up by saying that the credit is always primarily due to the athlete. Unsurprisingly, he is still regularly invited for various cooperations. There are indeed great sport psychology specialists in Hungary as well, and one can only hope that they will gain more attention in the future and will be able to change the negative image that people have of the highly publicised psychologists who have been ‘hogging the limelight’.

Systems in sport

Even if this desired change does take place, it will not solve coaches’ most urgent problems in terms of psychology. And as they are the ones primarily responsible for success, it is critical that they be able to achieve some improvement in this area. Coaches think systematically, in strategies and tactics; indeed, on the level of intuition, they must be able to evaluate certain psychological processes, but ‘soul-searching’ is not their area of expertise. This statement becomes all the more valid if we consider that in almost every sport, it is the expert-type people who can really get to and stay on top; those who approach psychology not from an emotional, empathetic point of view, but build decision-making mechanisms systematically and lead their teams accordingly. To that end, they need a kind of psychological system that sport psychologists cannot offer them, because this profession requires a completely different type of personality. It is a small wonder, therefore, that more and more sport specialists worldwide apply psychology-based systems that have been proven effective in business. These systems deal primarily with behaviour analysis and can truly help coaches get closer to their goals by offering them actionable information about the team in a coherent language; a simple classification of athletes based on various behaviour types is in itself a highly useful contribution. Using such a system, we can communicate with the athletes belonging to a certain behaviour category using a unified language, which can provide great support from making certain decisions.  Nowadays, there is increasing competition among these systems to be able to go beyond behavioural patterns and determine the personalities of the persons analysed. There are perhaps 3-4 companies worldwide that conduct serious research in this aspect and have been able to show reliable results.

Crises

Sports, however, have different needs in terms of psychological systems than businesses.  This is why many systems have failed in recent years, because they were not able to provide users with any significant support beyond initial identification of patterns. The RISE System was first used in sports eight years ago, and we ourselves experienced the negative impact of applying traditional business mentality to sports. Besides several minor factors, the real difference is in defining behavioural changes in crisis situations, in other words accurately determining the ‘original’ and the ‘current’ personality of the athlete analysed, as well as the extent of personality shifts during the life of the athlete thus far, and the resulting impact on their current behaviour. In business, this factor has acquired even greater significance since the global economic crisis; the kind of speed and intensity seen since the crisis, in the new era of ‘regaining market share’, had not been seen in business for decades. Based on our analyses, an average business manager encounters at least 2-3 crisis situations per year, at which time their current personality known by their environment immediately ‘falls back’ to their original personality. This is because in situations of crisis, we always make decisions with our original personality, which means that if the personality shift between the current and original personalities is significant, it can produce big surprises for the person’s immediate environment. This is something that employers nowadays are trying to offset, and it is one of the reasons why RISE is becoming more and more widely used. Back to sports: the real difference between sport and business is that an athlete encounters many times more crisis situations than a businessman. An international tournament – European championships, International championships, or perhaps the Olympic Games – create, from the very first minute, the first race, or the first game, a stressful environment that can be defined as a crisis, which immediately thrusts the athlete’s currently exhibited personality back to its original state. Coaches and fans are often unpleasantly surprised when the performance of their protégé or beloved athlete lags far behind what he is normally capable of doing, for reasons unfathomable to everyone. Another important difference between business life and sport is that psychological systems used in sport must be faultless — there is no room for errors. If the system does make an error, sports do not wait for months or years to find out that somebody was mistakenly ‘identified’ by the method. In sports, the consequences are immediately, quite spectacularly, and inexcusably manifested on the court. This is why sports are reluctant to test systems that have proven very profitable business. In the case of RISE, it was the fanaticism for sports that drove analysts, sports psychologists and consultants to try their hand at this field after all (notwithstanding the fact that sports take much more work with far less profit). The developers of RISE all had previous careers as top athletes, which meant that the shift towards sports in the development of the system was inevitable. It is therefore a very important and welcome feedback to see psychologists working in the biggest sports starting to apply this system and recognising its competence and results.

A dominant personality type shifting towards the supporter type

Areas of application

The system’s potential areas of application must be clarified at the beginning, lest somebody should think that this system is a panacea. These systems are most valuable in the selection of team members, and are most efficient in continuous development in team sports, primarily — when, for example, a sport specialist is faced with the question of who to sign to their club, whether a given player will be able to bring their previously seen form and skills to the new team, whether they can even be integrated into the new environment, or whether it is really that particular person that the team needs. If the most important goal for a club is winning the Championships, in other words they need athletes with a consistently balanced, high performance, they must clearly choose a player with a supporter personality type. If, important as championships may be, the real revenue of the club comes from successful runs at international cups, a ruler personality will take precedence. If certain big clubs place a premium on interesting personality, because they want someone who can be publicised and whose jerseys and merchandise will sell, the most obvious choice is an individual-type personality. It is, of course, the expert type that we need if we want someone who can perform well in all of the above goals, albeit with more time needed to realise their full potential. It is also important, however, to take the current composition of the team into account. If, for example, you have a team that is fundamentally successful with playing together as a team, one must be very careful with bringing in a ruler player, because they might erode the unity of the team. However, if is nobody on the team who will stand up in the riskiest moments and give their best, the team will have to sign a ruler player immediately. These are only a few examples for application and I could go on for days about potential challenges and their solutions. It has become indispensable for sport specialists to see the original – true – personality of the athlete during the selection procedure. In addition, every athlete will go through personality shifts (sometimes to a smaller, but mostly to a greater extent); what observers see and what coaches can evaluate is often far from the reality. Accurate personality identification will answer exactly these questions. I have seen dozens of big surprises when a player groomed and playing in domestic championships was widely considered as a team player – because he had learnt that he had to repress his individual side, which was the key to his success, or rather, it could have been. When he was faced with a ‘now or never’ situation at a world championship game, the selfish behaviour of his individual side took over, and he took on the attitude of ‘I will take care of it’, which the coach had trouble handling in the moment. In Hungarian team sports, many medals and even gold medals that had been thought to be in the bag were lost due to a lack of understanding of the players’ original personalities.

Distribution of personality types in the ‘world-beater’, Olympic champion, international champion, and European champion Norwegian women’s handball team

Distribution of personality types in the ‘world-beater’, Olympic champion, international champion, and European champion French men’s handball team

Talent selection and management

The most important application of RISE is not in the above-mentioned adult team sports, but in the methodology of talent selection and management of junior athletes. The application of the system during selection procedures can not only support sport specialists, but also parents in making decisions regarding their child. It is indeed a sensitive area. When we appeared on the market with our first test for juniors, everyone was ‘taken aback’ by the weight of the responsibility. Although we always stress that, as with every evaluation, this is only to be taken as a guidance, the written word inevitably carries weight. What makes the analysis of juniors, if done at the right time, slightly easier compared to adults is that they haven’t lived so much in the so-called ‘real world’, which means that social, parental, and other influences haven’t had a chance to significantly modify their personalities, and the expected extent of future personality shifts is minimal. The analysis of junior athletes, therefore, usually yields are far fewer surprises than that of adults. This, however, cannot be taken as a general truth, because certain environments may make a difference. If the child grows up in a family where the father or the mother wants to fulfil their own lost sports career vicariously through their child, the child can suffer significant distortions to their personality already by the age of 10-11, which will necessarily impact their behaviour and sport performance. It is indeed valuable information to know which talents are worth the extra energy investment, how that energy can be best managed, and what direction it needs to take for success to be maximised, while still allowing the child to have a happy life. It seems complex, but in reality, it is a not-so-complicated question: the answer to every element of lies in the original personality. Sport specialists dealing with junior athletes are very conscientious people who love the children in their care and want the best for them. Therefore, it is a small wonder that they are usually the first to articulate the need for identifying the underlying real personality. In the development of RISE, the focus has been on juniors, talent selection, and management from the very beginning. What are some specific methods? If the child we are dealing with is a expert type, they will certainly not become a star any time soon: it takes enormous effort and time for them to reach their maximum performance; at the same time, it is exactly this personality type who will be able to continue significantly improving well into their 30s. The problem in this case is that some results need to be shown even as a junior, and coaches who are fixated on that will prioritise athletes who already exhibits good skills and exceptional performance as a junior, and sometimes ignore expert types who take more time to improve. Although it is them who have the most potential to become the pillars of their future teams, they are regularly overlooked when selecting the players for Junior teams. The same is often true for supporter talents who are quiet and require a lot of practice and routine; they don’t have a spectacular game and do not score goals that bring the stadium roaring to their feet (unless it is the game-winning goal), but they are reliable, consistent, and can give their best to the team down to the very last minute. Once we have mapped the child’s personality, we can create the ideal motivational environment that will ensure their long-term commitment to the sport.

Last but certainly not least

The third major area of application of these systems is slightly more ‘abstract’, but equally useful and has been increasingly used in the last two years. Personality traits can also be identified – albeit not in the most complex sense – without the person performing the analysis ever even meeting their subject. Because we have been able to collect a lot information online and social media has gained such enormous ground, we can detect certain tell-tale signs that can indicate a person’s dominant personality that will determine their most important decisions. Politicians, businesspeople, and most importantly, athletes, can be evaluated in this way, because their Wikipedia and almost compulsory social media presence can often be rather telling. Although this type of analysis obviously lacks complexity, it is enough to paint a general picture and determine the personality traits that will dominate decision-making mechanisms, whether or not the given person has an online presence; both circumstances correspond to certain personality traits. This type of information can be very useful in two primary areas within sport.

One of these areas is when an athlete needs to do research on an opponent in preparation, and the traditional video-based professional analyses can be well complemented with mapping the future opponent’s primary personality, which enables the identification of the opponent’s weak points from a psychological point of view. It can also provide great support when preparing for a certain key player, especially if it turns out from the special online personality analysis that not everything is as it seems.

The other important area is determining the composition of the team, i.e. player selection. After nine years of experience, we can confidently state that sports have their own personality rules. For example, playmakers in men’s handball (at least the ones who are able to stay on top for a long time) are always supporters; another example is a significant change that’s been seen in the past 10 years in shooting positions: the previously successful individual shooters have been replaced by supporter scorers. To look at an example from basketball, the tendency to prefer ruler and individual players that used to be typical of the NBA is giving way to a preference for complex personalities and experts. In football, it is also the expert coaches who can be the most successful, while every other personality type will fail after some time, just like in handball. The list of rules goes on, which is based on the evaluation of ever over 10,000 athletes.

There are more and more new directions in the cooperation between sport and psychology, and modern sports people are hungry for new knowledge. They can see that physical preparation is much easier to manage than the psychological one, but they also see is that the latter is a more important determinant of future success. We have conducted a lot of development in the past nine years, and we have expanded the sphere of sports questions that we can answer, while the list is nowhere near exhaustive. What has become clear, is that sport psychologists should see these psychological systems more as a support tool than the enemy, because real success, especially in team sports, can be achieved with the simultaneous application of both approaches. For consulting companies, sports will always remain a ‘labour of love’ rather than a new way of making large profits, but perhaps that is how it should be. The process will only become more efficient if the consultant feels at least the same sense of success when an athlete scores a goal as when a big project yields ‘juicy’ profits.

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