Sports Psychology: The Effects of Loss Aversion

Loss aversion, the tendency to value what one has over what one could gain, is devastating to the athlete. Learn more about the effects of loss aversion.

Psychology and sports are intertwined. One example of their connection is loss aversion, the human tendency to hold things we already have at a higher value than something we could potentially earn.

To put this in perspective, imagine your coach is waiting for you as you enter the weight room. He or she offers you the incentive of free gear if you max out on any lift during the training session. However, despite best efforts, you fail to produce. Now take a similar scenario, but this time everyone on the team is given a prize as they walk in, but coach states that anyone who doesn't meet goal will have it taken away. Again, you're unable to surpass your max and you have to return the new gear.

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Psychology and sports are intertwined. One example of their connection is loss aversion, the human tendency to hold things we already have at a higher value than something we could potentially earn.

To put this in perspective, imagine your coach is waiting for you as you enter the weight room. He or she offers you the incentive of free gear if you max out on any lift during the training session. However, despite best efforts, you fail to produce. Now take a similar scenario, but this time everyone on the team is given a prize as they walk in, but coach states that anyone who doesn't meet goal will have it taken away. Again, you're unable to surpass your max and you have to return the new gear.

In both scenarios you get no prize; but you probably have a different feeling about the gear not awarded to you than you do about the gear taken away. Which is worse, not earning the gear or having to give it back? Most would say it felt worse to lose the prize than to not have it awarded in the first place. Although it would be nice to earn the extra gear, it doesn't ruin your day. To lose something you once possessed stings more.

The same psychology can be applied to in-game situations. When making key decisions, football coaches often apply loss aversion without realizing it. Say a game has under five minutes left and your team is down three with the ball on your opponents' 25-yard line, 4th and inches. Most coaches will kick the game-tying field goal rather than risk going for the 1st down. Why? Loss aversion. Specifically the field goal is "guaranteed," and the coach sees it as a way to tie the game and prevent a loss. Kicking the field goal seems the safer choice, but it's not necessarily. Why? Because:

  • The yardage needed for the 1st down is short, so there's a good chance you'll get it.
  • The closer you are to the end zone, the greater the chance of scoring a touchdown
  • Scoring a touchdown takes more time off the clock.
  • You potentially improve field position from a kickoff, putting pressure on the other team to regain the lead.

Loss aversion causes us to replace logic with fear. We start to play not to lose rather than to win. Learning how to combat the effects of loss aversion will ultimately make you a better athlete.

This article was co-authored by Dr. Goldman's intern, Alex Auerbach, and inspired by Score Casting.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: COACH | FIELD GOAL