Public pressure and Serbian national team – Anatomy of excuses

By Jelena Luković

No matter how much you think that sport is a secondary thing in life, for many, there is a different logic to it. Sport is something like sex in a relationship – a peripheral segment when everything is fine and a preoccupation when expectations and reality diverge.

Maybe you have seldom wondered, just before taking a post-lunch nap, why the masses unprovokedly harness the athletes and place high expectations on them, which, when they are not met, turn heroes into losers in seconds. Perhaps hardly anyone wonders where Serbs get such a charge of emotions when Djokovic plays, but it doesn’t come as a surprise that everyone turns into hyper-charged spectators, right after the abovementioned nap, when a national team or an individual starts playing in a match.

If there is a thin line between love and hate, athletes sometimes don’t gain anything from the love we show them. The Serbian football team is a clear example of both and the European Championship, which is currently taking place in Germany, confirms that.

“Public pressure used to be called pressure from your surroundings. We cannot live completely apart from each other and of course, we are influenced by the opinions and expectations of others. There is never just an individual or just a collective, but they are intertwined. An individual does not exist without a collective and what the collective expects from us greatly affects us,” psychotherapist and author of the book Great Stories, Milan Damjanac, says for Nedeljnik weekly.

“Our behaviour and expression of emotions, needs and desires are manifested in the domain that is culturally allowed. Very few people go outside the realm of what the environment allows or supports. This is a serious phenomenon and public pressure exists to fit individuals into the same mould, while individuals, on the other hand, cannot live without that public. A person needs to work a lot on themselves to understand how much they can accept public pressure and expectations and to recognize the frustrations of the public. The bigger the trouble that the collective finds itself in, the more it needs to pressure someone. I’d rather be concerned with whether Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player in the world than with my own life or how I feel. The more I think someone can achieve a lot, the more I will push them. That is what is culturally important to this environment. We have a very strong narrative here: if I expect a lot from you, I will pressure you, but I will not praise you, so that you don’t get spoiled”, Damjanac adds.

The Serbian football team has often been heavily criticized and most of that criticism was well-founded. But this team – which has pronounced flaws – also faces the decades-long legacy of all the labels that have been attached to that team. They call them “rafters” (people who often visit night clubs on water – translator’s remark), “loiterers” and people who “don’t respect their nation, the country, the coat of arms and the flag”. At the same time, the same public has high expectations.

We have seen so many times that Serbian footballers cannot play their best games under that pressure. Not even close.

“Most athletes contact me when they don’t know what to do anymore,” sports psychologist and Olympic volleyball champion Andrija Gerić tells Nedeljnik and adds:

“They tried all kinds of things that they think will help them, they consulted the coach, tried what the coach told them to do and it didn’t work. That’s when they come to me for help. Specifically, they ask for help in dealing with public pressure…  However, sports spectators in our country, just like most things here, are not educated. In England, they work with football players and their parents from the age of five, and in parallel with training, the parents are also taught how to behave. They realized that it is better to work with five-year-olds and their parents because by the time the kids reach 15 years of age, their parents will already know how to behave and how to deal with it. If kids don’t go through this kind of training, their parents will turn in the said audience. This is not taken into account at all in our country, with people trying to manage (public pressure) to the best of their abilities. I’m also talking from the point of view of the parents of these athletes. When children play a match, parents oftentimes engage in physical fights with each other on the sidelines, shouting at the kids and doing all sorts of things. And they consider that normal. I am the parent of an athlete and sometimes I do get emotional, but I try not to go beyond simple cheering for my child and the beauty of sports, not against the opposing team”.

“Serbs usually have trouble with splitting. Everything is black and white with us. We look at the world as being good or bad. This is everywhere – from politics and the media to whatever. You’re either the best or you’re the worst. We also have a lot of trouble with self-respect. We always expect the most from ourselves and when we fail to achieve it because we have unrealistic demands, then we invent reasons why we couldn’t be better. When it comes to sports or similar activities, the expectation is for our athletes to beat other, world powers. Because when you’re at the bottom of the barrel and some kind of injustice has been done to you, then it’s somehow much easier not to do what you can, but rather transfer that burden to someone else, to do it for you. Will my life necessarily improve because of sporting success? It won’t, but it’s a small victory that we want to achieve, hence the pressure that we put on our athletes to achieve that”, Damjanac explains.

While people are taught from a young age that it is important to win and that the consolation prize is “it is important to participate”, the field (for most of them the television) becomes an arena, but the other one – a life and death struggle.

“We are strong in some sports and less good in others, but any result we achieve at big competitions – European and world championships or the Olympic Games – is a big one, especially in sports where there is a long tradition of accomplishing good results. There is also the burden of the past to consider. We, as a nation and sports fans, have high expectations that we impose on athletes. We are a relatively small country, with limited resources, and a relatively small nation, but we have been achieving fantastic results considering everything. Still, there are people who are not satisfied with that”, Gerić goes on to say.

Many studies have shown that strong public pressure has a negative effect on the performance of professional athletes. One research, published in Psychology Today magazine, says that „professional tennis players make more mistakes in decisive games. Another study found that basketball players hit free throws at a significantly higher percentage while training than they did during games. In the same spirit, higher stakes in professional golf increase the likelihood of missing a shot on the final hole.

This drop in performance occurs when people consciously monitor skill-based processes that are best executed as automated actions. One study found that a complex sensorimotor task is best performed when executed as an automated action. Overthinking or monitoring each step is likely to end with choking”.

Damjanac explains that “more experienced athletes, who are over thirty”, are more resilient and can withstand pressure more easily.

No matter how mature a person is, it is not easy to be exposed to negative influences, unsolicited advice, layman’s forecasts and often insults. It is not easy, but it is certain that at least some of these things will happen.

Andrija Gerić says that an athlete who plays for the national team has the responsibility to work hard. He says that for an athlete this can be motivating, but also a source of fear. “However, one should be guided by the thought that it is just a game and that an athlete is there to give their best. This is the beginning and the end of the story because the audience can spot very well whether someone is trying or not,” Gerić adds.

Although, in the end, one might think that the consequences could be serious, even leading to psychosomatic disorders, this is still rarely the case.

“What actually happens more often is that athletes simply fail, they feel very bad and that affects their overall performance. In principle, people deal with it in different ways – some consume too much alcohol, some do other things, while some suffer from psychosomatic disorders, but that is not the rule of thumb. Mood swings are more present”, concludes psychotherapist Damjanac.

Mood swings and the Serbian football team – it sounds like two inseparable things. But this conclusion is also a kind of pressure.

(Nedeljnik, 20.06.2024)

This post is also available in: Italiano

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